Post Office Card Accounts

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:31 pm on 13 March 2003.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 4:31, 13 March 2003

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S1M-3932, in the name of David Mundell, on Post Office card accounts. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that those post office customers in Scotland who wish to continue receiving their benefits, pensions payments and tax credits through the Post Office, following the introduction of automated credit transfer in April 2003, should be allowed to do so through a post office card account opened at the counter of a post office or sub-post office; further believes that customers should be offered a genuine choice between the options available, including a post office card account; supports the National Federation of SubPostmasters' call that there should be no administrative obstacles to customers opening a post office card account; notes the importance of post office card accounts to the future financial viability of sub-post offices, and considers that Scottish ministers should work with Her Majesty's Government to ensure that there is a level playing field in the marketing, promotion and advertising of the banking options from all departments of Her Majesty's Government, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue and the Veterans Agency, the Scottish Executive and its agencies and local authorities.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 4:40, 13 March 2003

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in debate the subject of Post Office card accounts. I thank my colleagues in the Conservative group for their generosity in allowing me to be allocated another members' business debate. I put it on record that I regard it as a privilege to be the member who has secured the largest number of members' business debates during the parliamentary session. I am sure that all members agree that the success of members' business debates is in giving members the opportunity to raise issues that are of great importance to their constituents. That is certainly the case with post offices.

The Post Office and the benefits system are obviously reserved matters, but the way in which they are operated has a major impact on many devolved issues, such as rural development, social inclusion and local government. That is why, in January 2000, I initiated a members' business debate on the future of rural post offices. That debate was held against the backdrop of concerns and uncertainty about the future of the post office network, following changes to the benefits payment system to introduce automated credit transfers in place of traditional payment books.

The concerns then, as now, were about the availability of cash to people who live in rural or disadvantaged communities and about how sub-postmasters throughout Scotland would make a living from the operation of their post offices, given that they are paid primarily according to the number of transactions that are conducted in their post offices.

In the intervening period, United Kingdom ministers gave many assurances that those issues could and would be resolved. Three options were presented for solving the difficulties. First, it has been argued that pensioners and benefit recipients could use their existing bank accounts to receive their pension or benefits payments and that cash could be paid at their local post office. Despite the involvement of some banking organisations, the reality for customers in Scotland is that the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank are not part of the scheme that allows payment at a post office. Accordingly, given those banks' market dominance in Scotland, the option of using an existing bank account for payment at a post office is a non-starter for most people. I never wish to interfere with our banks' commercial decision making, but it would help if the minister undertook to elicit for members the rationale of the major banks in Scotland for not being part of the scheme.

The minister might also wish to discuss with the banks the basic bank account, which was presented as another option for payment. That was to be available to people who did not have bank accounts and who it was judged would normally not find it easy to open a bank account. Those accounts were to be available at all major banks. However, when I attended a recent meeting in Moffat of sub-postmasters from the south of Scotland, I was advised that it is virtually impossible to open a basic bank account and that the number of such accounts that have been opened, relative to the number of benefit and pension recipients, is minuscule. Banks do not promote such accounts and one draws the inevitable conclusion that the basic bank account is not a meaningful alternative payment method.

That leaves the Post Office card account, which would allow benefits and pension money to be paid indirectly and allow the recipient to receive the cash over the counter simply by keying in their personal identification number when they took their card to their local post office. The concern that I present to the minister is that the card accounts and that payment method are not being highlighted sufficiently to benefit recipients, so sub-postmasters throughout Scotland are not being given a level playing field on payment options relative to banks and building societies.

The matter first came to my attention earlier this year, when Pauline Smith, the sub-postmistress at Gretna Green, sent me a copy of a letter that a customer had received from the veterans agency. Instead of saying explicitly that that lady could continue to have her war pension paid at her local post office via a card account, the letter made the most cursory of references to the card account at the bottom of page 3 and introduced the requirement to complete other forms before payment could be made at a post office. However, the option of giving bank details was contained clearly in the letter and a reply-paid envelope was provided for a return to be made to the agency. That does not seem to be an encouragement of the use of Post Office card accounts.

Subsequently, other postmasters, including Mr Paul Lumb from Canonbie, whom I visited on Saturday, highlighted to me that recipients of child benefits were receiving letters in similar terms that did not make explicitly clear the option of the use of the Post Office card account. Moreover, the letters did not make it any easier for the benefit recipient to open an account in preference to giving bank details. No doubt that is why so many fewer Post Office card accounts have been opened than might have been anticipated. I am sure that the minister will have the figures.

The principal concern is that, unless there is a change in attitude, particularly at the Department for Works and Pensions, the transfer of payment of retirement pensions, which is a significant part of the business of most post offices and which is vital to the cash flow and day-to-day life of many elderly people in Scotland, will proceed on the same basis.

The DWP is effectively discouraging the use of Post Office card accounts. If those accounts are not used, the mainstay of the business of most post offices will be lost and the whole viability of many post offices will be on the line. That would mean that even the most vulnerable in our society, who are unlikely to be able to open a basic bank account, will not have access to cash within their community.

The many postmasters and postmistresses to whom I have spoken on the issue do not want preferential treatment; they want a level playing field. They want the Post Office card account option to be made clear to people. If a level playing field is created, postmasters are confident that the public will choose Post Office card accounts as their preferred method of payment. The public know that they receive a personal service at post offices, which have knowledge of individual customer's needs. They also know that these days, at banks, customers have to decline the offer of a mortgage, insurance and travellers cheques before they get to the teller, who is to be found in the back corner of the bank.

I hope that the minister will take the issue seriously and that he will join members of all parties at Westminster and members of all parties who signed my motion in lobbying Her Majesty's Government to ensure that our post offices are given a level playing field in relation to Post Office card accounts and that our citizens in Scotland will continue to have the opportunity to receive payment in cash at post offices in Scotland.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:48, 13 March 2003

I am happy to support David Mundell's excellent motion. In rural areas, post offices are absolutely central to our communities; we cannot overstate their importance. The range of postal services that local post offices provide, in addition to the commercial services that they offer, depends on their continuing income from the Post Office.

Many of the people who use post offices are pensioners. I dispute the assertion that was made in a letter that I received from the DWP that

"85 per cent of benefit and pension recipients" have a bank account. Although that might be true as an average, it is certainly not true in the many villages in my constituency. I am sure that other members know of constituents who have no access to banks and for whom their post office is the only option. For the generations of people who have been more used to face-to-face dealings than to voicemail, Touchtone phones and plastic cards, the threat of having to go and open a bank account is quite intimidating—it is an unwarranted change.

In a previous life, I worked with the DWP and I have to say that its staff are not the easiest people to work with—once they get an idea, they simply go for it. It is arrogant of them to operate in the way that we have heard about under the guise of being helpful. I quote again from the letter I received:

"As you know, customers who wish to apply for a Post Office ... card account are asked to call the Department. I can assure you that this is purely to ensure that they can have a fully informed discussion about all of the options".

Believe me, that "fully informed discussion" is entirely geared to ensuring that the banks, and not the Post Office, get the business. Members should not just take my word for it. If they want, they should phone up the helpline and pretend that they are someone else. They will find a sales pitch for the banks. The situation is quite disgraceful.

The new leaflets that have been issued on the payment of pensions are a vast improvement. Information about the Post Office card account now comes at the top. However, although that step is welcome, it is very belated and many post offices are probably now at severe risk. I have visited a number in Fraserburgh, Maud and other parts of my constituency and know that there are difficulties.

The DWP has prevented sub-postmasters from putting up posters that advertise how the Post Office card can be used. As a result, I have produced a poster myself and given it to many sub-postmasters in my constituency. I encourage all members to do the same thing; I will give them the template if that helps.

I very much welcome this opportunity to highlight the DWP's arrogant manipulation of post offices at a time when they are under real threat. We must resist that threat with every bone in our body.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 4:51, 13 March 2003

I congratulate David Mundell on securing today's debate. I will cite some examples to develop Stewart Stevenson's point that not every community has a bank. I spoke today to Mr Norman Henderson, who is the sub-postmaster in the village of Tongue on the north coast of Sutherland. Although there is a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Tongue, Clydesdale Bank customers have to travel 44 miles to their nearest branch, which is in Thurso. There is also a hole in the wall in Durness. Jane Selby, who is the sub-postmistress in Scourie, tells me that the nearest bank is a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland 26 miles away in Lochinver and that Bank of Scotland customers have to travel 41 miles to Lairg.

A decrease in the number of people who use post offices will have knock-on effects. After all, many who use them to collect pensions also tend to buy a packet of digestives, a bag of apples or whatever. That option brings in customers and makes these little businesses viable—any decrease in the number of customers will threaten their future viability.

David Mundell highlighted the important social role that our post offices play. They contain local knowledge—for example, the sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses know their customers well and keep their eye on them in a friendly and constructive way. If that service goes, some of the most vulnerable people in our society will face an additional threat.

As post offices are the very heart of our remote communities, we must do everything that we can to shore them up. The problem is that, even with card accounts, post offices will receive less income than they do at present. Therein lies another threat.

We must try to support post offices. For example, why do they not carry information about local government? I ask the minister to consider that constructive suggestion and to urge it on his Westminster colleagues when he makes representations to them.

We lose our post offices at our peril. They are absolutely vital to some of the remotest parts of Scotland, including my constituency, and to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I urge members to support our post office network.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 4:53, 13 March 2003

I strongly support David Mundell's motion and particularly his demand that there should be real freedom of choice between the options available for cashing pensions and other benefits. Indeed, there is a good case for encouraging more use of Post Office card accounts and I support the National Federation of SubPostmasters' call that there should be no administrative obstacles to opening such accounts.

The post office network is an essential lifeline for many communities not just in remote rural areas, but in some urban and semi-urban areas. Post offices and sub-post offices need adequate business to survive. If they do not survive, a valuable service will be lost and people on low incomes who are dependent on state benefits will suffer most.

Many people on low incomes do not have bank accounts. Indeed, for various reasons, some of them might not have the opportunity to open a traditional type of bank account. It should therefore be made as easy as possible for them to open a Post Office card account. Other people may have an account with a bank or building society that has not yet signed up to the appropriate agreement with the Post Office. The Scottish Executive and the UK Government should encourage all financial institutions to sign up to such an agreement. In the meantime, however, the arrangements to open a Post Office card account should be made as easy as possible.

I feel strongly that post offices should be encouraged to broaden and diversify the range of services that they offer, including banking and other financial services. That would be of great benefit to individual consumers and would enhance the viability of the post office network, which provides such a valuable service to the people of this country.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 4:56, 13 March 2003

I am delighted to support David Mundell's motion, which is not the first members' business motion that he has lodged on post offices. I also welcome Cathy Walker and Liz MacFarlane from the Highlands. The time that they have taken to travel here to listen to the debate highlights the strength of feeling on the issue that exists throughout Scotland. Given the disappointing lack of support for "Your Guide" from the Scottish Executive and our post offices, there is no doubt that there is an enormous threat hanging over sub-post offices.

I have been sent information from a post office in Inverness that states that the Post Office card account is welcomed by pensioners, particularly as they can withdraw £10 per day, or twice a day, rather than have to take out their full pension, and that that is obviously of great interest to many customers, given the muggings that have taken place.

There are currently 140,000 retirement pensioners who do not have a bank account, as Dennis Canavan said. Organisations such as Help the Aged are concerned about the new type of account for members of society who have not been used to operating a bank account. If they accidentally become overdrawn, the charges can be as high as £30 per day, which is a huge amount for someone in receipt of a small weekly income.

Mike Dow and Cathy Walker, two sub-postmasters in Inverness, conducted a local survey around various banks in the city to see how easy or difficult it would be to open the basic bank account. Only one major high street bank knew about these accounts and had the application forms readily available. Another suggested that bank staff could phone their man in London, and another knew that the accounts existed but was still awaiting paperwork from head office. Although all the major banking institutions have signed a contract with the Post Office, it seems almost impossible to open one of those accounts. It is a national, UK-wide problem, not simply one in Inverness.

I have a letter sent from the Department for Work and Pensions to retirement pension customers. It is dated 9 February 2003 and, as other members have said, it states that

"What we ask you to do now" is simply to pick up the telephone and dial a freephone number, and that customers who do that can sign up very easily. However, for customers who wish to open a Post Office card account, there are 21 steps after the phone call before they receive a swipe card and four-digit PIN. Why does not the Department for Work and Pensions include an application form for the Post Office card account with the original letter and provide post offices with a level playing field?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:59, 13 March 2003

In criticising the Government, and particularly the Westminster Government, for the position that we are in now, I have to say that the current problem is not one that we did not see coming many years ago. I originally got involved in the matter when I was first elected to Westminster in 1997. Since then, there have been on-going concerns and on-going closures of post offices. Many of those closures have been fuelled by the difficulties that existing postmasters face in selling their businesses because of the total uncertainty of what was going to happen to them. There was clearly always a strong case for scrapping the existing giro book system because of the fraud to which it was open, but the alternative was the problem.

After the failure of the horizon system, which I think was early in 1998, the Government seemed to be making things up as it went along. It came up with the idea of a people's bank account, but it did not negotiate the details of that with the banks that would have had to administer the accounts. The Government tried to come up with a solution before it had the answer. Although it said that the present alternatives would be promoted equally, it has not done so. I am not sure whether the ministers or their civil servants have fallen down, but the alternatives have simply not been promoted to the extent required.

I want to highlight another problem. On Tuesday, I came across a customer in Dunscore post office in my constituency who was cashing her pension book. When, out of hearing of the postmaster, I talked to her about the changes, she said that when the giro book became unavailable, she would not go through the hassle of getting another account and card, but simply get the money through her existing bank account. That might be all right for her, because she has a car and can go to Dumfries, but as Dunscore has no cash machine or bank, many other people will be in severe difficulties if the post office closes.

Each post office is different and many have diversified as far as they can. It is facile to think that they will survive if they lose so much business. I have no time to rehearse post offices' vital role in rural communities. I congratulate David Mundell on his motion, which the Executive and all members must support. There is no going back when a post office is closed; each closure is yet another nail in the coffin of rural communities. I am afraid that both the nails and the coffin have been created by the Government's centralising agenda.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 5:02, 13 March 2003

As we have heard, we are about to witness a dramatic change in a national institution—our local post offices. Over many decades, post offices have provided a professional and dedicated service to communities in urban and rural Scotland. My main concern is over the difficulties that the change will create in large areas of rural Scotland for many existing users of Post Office services. Post offices are crucial to supporting the well-being of those fragile areas.

Many rural post offices are run by private individuals, who provide a social service for the resident community. Those people have witnessed a steady decline in the business transacted through their post offices, with a consequent fall in profit margins. I am glad to say that local authorities have attempted to help by reducing the burden of rates and other charges that are imposed on sub-post offices. That has helped to slow the rate of closures, but we now hear that the benefit transactions and key services on which the businesses depend are to be removed and replaced by a system of automated credit transfer, which, I fear, will be the final death knell. The changes will accelerate the demise of rural post offices as we know them.

As several members have said, many people who depend on Post Office services do not have a bank account, but use their local post office to collect cash, benefit cheques or pension vouchers. I am sure that members will understand and agree that those people look forward to their weekly visit to the post office to meet people, chat for a while and, most important, collect their money.

When the new system comes into force, post offices will lose revenue and customers, who will no longer go to post offices to collect their money. The Post Office network is the only network that I can think of that stretches into pretty well every community in the land. It is a tremendous asset, but we do not seem to value it or utilise it to its full potential. Given that it could be used in so many ways, it is depressing that the Government will remove a use that has helped to sustain the network.

I suggest that more effort must be directed to introducing more innovative businesses and services through post offices so that we can retain and sustain our rural communities and so honour our commitment to the principle of social inclusion, about which we hear so often in the Parliament.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 5:05, 13 March 2003

I commend my colleague, David Mundell, for his motion and congratulate him on securing the time to debate it. It concerns a vital issue for those of us who represent rural areas.

Over recent months, I have visited a number of post offices around Perthshire and Angus—including those in Murthly, Memus and Kinloch Rannoch—which have been saved by local communities that are desperate to hold on to a key local service. I have found that those post offices are going from strength to strength, although they were saved only by the involvement of the local communities. Last autumn, I met a delegation of sub-postmasters from Tayside who had come to lobby Parliament and who expressed their concerns about the transition to automatic benefit transfers and the marketing—or the lack of it—of the Post Office account card by the Department for Work and Pensions. They said that they believed that there would be a poor take-up of the card account due to the biased literature that was being produced by the Government. They have been proved right. In the first trials, only a small percentage of benefit recipients took up the Post Office option.

A MORI poll that was carried out in post offices in 2001 asked pension and benefit recipients how they would prefer to receive their payments: whether in cash at a post office or paid directly into a bank or building society account. At that point, 95 per cent of those people said that they would prefer to receive their benefits in cash at post offices. So, what has changed? It is the view of the sub-postmasters that the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to promote effectively the choices that are available to customers.

David Mundell and other members have referred to the forms that must be filled in. I recently visited Blair Atholl post office, where the sub-postmaster showed me one of the forms that had been sent out. It required the customer to be proactive and phone up to get a further form to fill in before the money would be paid at the post office. It is far easier to access the money through a bank or building society, and that is surely unacceptable.

A further point was made to me today by a postmistress. There is no provision for home helps to collect a pension for someone unless they have been appointed as a permanent agent. If the regular home help is off sick or on holiday, a temporary home help cannot collect a pension for a client. That could present a major problem for a housebound pensioner whose pension is, at the moment, collected by home helps. Due to changes in home help provision over the years, it is unusual for someone to have the same home help all the time.

I believe that customers are entitled to a genuine choice. All the sub-postmasters whom I have met know their customers well and are often called upon for help in filling in forms and accessing services, as well as just being a friendly face in the community. The Parliament has a duty to help our rural communities to retain that service, and we can make a positive contribution to that end by promoting a level playing field and campaigning for choice for all.

Looking around the chamber, I note the presence of members of the Scottish National Party, members of the Liberal Democrats, members of the Conservative party and Mr Canavan. However, apart from the minister, not a single member of the Labour party is present. Perhaps that explains why we are in the situation that we are now in.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 5:08, 13 March 2003

I congratulate David Mundell on securing the debate and I also express my disappointment that not a single Labour member has stayed for the debate. Given the overwhelming concern about the issue among pensioners, that is somewhat surprising. I am sure that the pensioners will make their views known.

The Westminster Government's changes to the way in which pensions will be paid are a threat to the existence of many of our local post offices. I would prefer pensioners to be able to collect their pensions in the traditional manner, through their pension books at their local post offices. All the pensioners to whom I have spoken agree. However, that is not going to be the case—Westminster is determined to push ahead with changes to the system that are driven by the administrative savings that will be made rather by than what is best for pensioners.

As has been said, many pensioners do not have a bank account, nor do they want one. In many cases, they will not be entitled to one; many pensioners whom I know have been declined bank accounts. Pensioners prefer to manage their pension money as they have always done, but the changes will be disruptive to the budgets of many pensioner households. For many pensioners, the only remaining alternative to a bank account will be the Post Office card account. Although that option is not ideal, I think that it is the best that is available and—more important—it provides a lifeline for the post offices that are under threat of closure.

It is fair to say that the card accounts have the potential to be a lifeline, which is why it is incredible that the Government is not providing a level playing field for Post Office card accounts. They are not being promoted as they should be. Instead, the Government clearly wants people to have bank accounts because the system will then cost less to administer.

A constituent of a colleague of mine phoned the helpline that the Department for Work and Pensions provides to find out how to open a Post Office card account. That constituent was told that it was not necessary for them to do that because they had an existing bank account. The evidence is that people are being put off having Post Office card accounts and that there is no level playing field.

I join others in endorsing the call by the National Federation of SubPostmasters for there to be no administrative obstacles for customers who want to open Post Office card accounts. I look forward to hearing from the minister about what he intends to do to ensure that a level playing field is created.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat 5:11, 13 March 2003

I, too, congratulate David Mundell on securing this important debate and I think that it is shameful that no Labour members are present. The minister cuts a rather lonely figure tonight and I hope that he will give answers to the points that have been raised in the debate.

I disagree with Mr Mundell only when he said that he did not want to criticise the commercial decisions of banks. They should be widely criticised for the high charges that they impose; indeed, when I visit the former shipping line headquarters that is now my bank, I feel that I have paid personally for the entire refurbishing of the mahogany panelling. Banks have become increasingly impersonal. Instead of bank employees saying, "Good morning, Mr Raffan," they ask, "Do you have an account at this bank?" That attitude contrasts with that of staff in sub-post offices. Every sub-postmaster whom I know knows not only the names of those who will be in a queue, but their order in the queue. If someone is not in their usual place, the sub-postmaster gets in touch to find out how they are. My friend John Farquhar Munro was correct that post offices provide a social and community service. I inform my Mid Scotland and Fife colleague, Murdo Fraser, that that service is not provided only in rural areas, but in urban areas. In fact, the financial viability of sub-post offices in such areas is much more threatened because they pay out more benefits. They will lose not just 30 per cent to 40 per cent of their income, but much more, and those that are most needed will be immediately threatened by closure.

I agree strongly with the terms of the motion. I echo what other members have said: pensioners and those who receive benefits should, if they wish, be allowed to receive their money through a Post Office card account and no obstacle should be put in their way. I have letters from sub-postmasters in Mid Scotland and Fife, which I represent, that state that pensioners who contacted the DWP requesting a Post Office card account had their requests ignored and were asked for their bank account details, but they need the personal invitation document from the DWP because without that their postmaster cannot process their application.

There must be a level playing field in terms of the options that are available to customers. There is serious concern among pensioners' groups about the issue. I have an e-mail from my good friend Jim Ferguson of the Perth pensioners forum about the concern among pensioners—who do not have and do not want bank accounts or cash cards—who are worried about potential budgeting problems and even hardship when the system moves to monthly payments into bank accounts.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, the post office network is important. There are 1,652 sub-post offices and they play a crucial role in our communities, but their financial viability is being threatened as the United Kingdom Government moves key services, such as benefits provision, to an automated credit transfer system.

I hope that the minister will respond on the issue of the "Your Guide" service. Post offices should be allowed to expand radically their role in the provision of information on Government issues and in helping citizens to carry out routine transactions with Government bodies. The Scottish Executive was given £3.5 million specifically for the "Your Guide" service, but the money has been absorbed into other funding and hardly anything has been done to promote that service. I would be grateful if the minister would address that specific point when he replies.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 5:14, 13 March 2003

I congratulate David Mundell on lodging the motion, which has received support from the three parties that are represented in the chamber and from Dennis Canavan, who is also present. I apologise for not being here for the beginning of the debate, but I had to attend to a call of nature.

Like other members, I was alerted to the problem by local postmasters, such as Cathy Walker of Kingsmills, who is here, and Mike Dow of Hilton. Like Mary Scanlon, we have attempted to highlight the problems that many members have mentioned.

One problem, which I do not think has been mentioned, is that one of the options—the basic bank account—could result in pensioners going into overdraft. If they do, on a pension of about £90 a week, the overdraft charge would be about one third of their total weekly income. How can a Labour Government allow that to occur?

Of the three options—the POCA, the basic bank account and the current account—the POCA should, if I may use a pun, be the red-hot option. It has many advantages, which many members have canvassed for. However, rather than rehearse the social function or the £380 million that, I think, the Government wasted on the horizon project—perhaps it should be called the "lost horizon project"—I will dwell on the theme that has emerged from the debate. That is that a level playing field is all that is wanted, although the Government—not just the DWP—has actively discouraged people from the POCA.

I sympathise with Allan Wilson. I am sure that he would rather be back in the debate that we had yesterday on the Agriculture Holdings (Scotland) Bill. He is a man alone today. "A Man Alone" was one of the songs from "The Ipcress File", which, as I am sure members will recall, had a fast-moving plot and a lot of casualties at the end. I hope that, when the minister makes his closing remarks, he will not be a casualty, because we get on fine with him.

However, there is a serious point to be made. We have all spoken with the same voice and used similar arguments; we all want the same things. However, the Executive minister who is present must defend a position that is contrary to what we argue for. It is a position that has been adopted by a Labour Government at Westminster. When will the Scottish Executive stand up to the London Government? When will it make it explicit that it will stand up for the clearly expressed views of at least three parties on an issue that is of huge social concern? When will it voice the fears that we have expressed about the ill thought-out nature of the proposals and the fact that the Labour Government seems to be hellbent on pursuing the policy regardless of the objections that have been made? There are about 300 signatories to the early day motion at Westminster.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

To conclude—I obediently follow the Presiding Officer's every direction—I hope that Allan Wilson will not obfuscate, evade and avoid, but instead will give Parliament an answer to my question: Will he stand up to the London Government on the matter, which is of great importance to many of our constituents?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 5:18, 13 March 2003

I am grateful to David Mundell for providing me with an opportunity this afternoon—it is still afternoon—to allay the concerns that he and others may have and to address some of the misinformation that has flown about in the debate.

I should not be surprised at the rather manufactured concern—if members do not mind my calling it that—at the absence of my colleagues. I assure members that they are getting quality, if not quantity, Labour representation.

Members, of course, are each represented by an MP, with whom they are perfectly at liberty to raise matters of concern on Post Office issues, benefit and pension payments and tax credits, because those are all reserved to the UK Government. That is properly so. It is how we get a viable, modern and effective Post Office service on a UK basis. The last thing that would help the Post Office would be to dismantle it nationally as the nationalists wish to do.

The changes that the Government is making to the way that benefits and pensions are paid will ensure a more modern, efficient and reliable service. They will increase customer choice, which I would have thought our Conservative colleagues would have supported. They will provide better value for the taxpayer, although that will not concern the nationalists particularly, given their spendthrift policies. They will also cut fraud and boost financial inclusion rather than the contrary, which John Farquhar Munro seemed to argue.

My abiding memory of this problem is walking down Kilbirnie main street, where I live, in the most inclement weather and seeing some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community sheltering themselves from the elements as they waited for the post office to open on a Monday morning so that they could cash their giros. I said to myself that there must be a better system than that.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

The better system that I propose, and which the Government is introducing, is that people in that vulnerable situation can—like Shona Robison, Keith Raffan and all the other members in the chamber—access their cash 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We want to provide that opportunity to the most vulnerable members of society and we make no apology for that.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

People will have more choice about where and when they collect their money. There are and will be a range of accounts that people can access at Post Office branches. People will no longer have to collect their money all in one go; the police and others think that that will help to tackle crime.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

We can give members the statistics on the number of old age pensioners who are robbed for their giro—I suspect that that happens in Perth as it does elsewhere.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

People will be able to collect their money from one of more than 40,000 cash machines across the UK. The current system of order books and giros—I suspect that there are a few of them in Dundee—is expensive to operate, as was mentioned, and is open to fraud and abuse. The new, modern system of direct payment will free up resources for better investment.

Direct payment into an account is also much more secure and will help the Government to crack down on the criminals who prey on pensioners—in Perth and in Dundee—by stealing their order books and cashing orders themselves; on average, well over 100 pensioners a week have their order books stolen.

Direct payment will help to spread financial inclusion by increasing the number of people who have bank accounts and giving them opportunities to benefit.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

On a point of order, is it in order for the minister to take interventions to disturb the free flow of his reading from his brief?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That is not a point of order. I ask the minister to continue.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I assure Mr Ewing that I am not reading from my brief, if that is any consolation.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

Why does the minister want to tell pensioners what he thinks is good for them instead of listening to what they want? Labour wants to do what it wants to do; it does not want to listen to people. If Labour were to listen it might do better in the polls.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I think that we will do all right in the polls. We are, as Mr Raffan knows, a listening Government. We are not about imposing change for its own sake. I am laying out why we believe that we should have a modernised and efficient service that gives poor and vulnerable people access to their cash 24 hours a day, seven days a week; that is the same access to their cash that Keith Raffan enjoys to his. We should not deny that to pensioners and the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

No. I must move on.

There have been a lot of sensible questions, in addition to some of the pre-election rubbish that has been spouted. I will answer the legitimate questions that David Mundell and others have asked. As I was challenged to stand up for Scotland, I should point out that I have been in contact regularly with colleagues down south to ensure that the legitimate questions that were asked by Keith Raffan and other members such as Alasdair Morgan—I recognise the interest that he has shown in the matter over the piece—have been represented and that the Scottish interest is taken on board in the considerations of colleagues down south.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

That is not true. I will come on to that.

The banks have been introducing straightforward, basic bank accounts over the past few years. Those are ideal for people who have never used an account before and, from April, many can be used at local post offices. Customers will have available to them a variety of free-to-operate bank account options that can be accessed through post offices as well as the new post office card account, which I will come to in more detail shortly. The important point is that people will still be able to get their money from the Post Office after the Government moves to direct payment.

I would argue that new banking services and the introduction of the Post Office card account are central to the future of the Post Office. Without those reforms, combined with significant Government support, the Post Office would face an uncertain future with declining numbers of customers and many more branch closures. Those changes provide an ideal opportunity for the Post Office to create a modern and efficient national network of branches providing a range of new, high-quality services to customers.

The UK Government is committed to ensuring that people will be able to continue to collect their benefits in cash at post offices if they so wish. There will be post office access to a range of bank accounts. That will enable all those who wish to do so to continue to collect their benefits in cash at post offices. There is the existing account, which is a standard bank or building society account—I notice that about 42 per cent of benefit recipients currently choose to hold such an account—and there is the bank or building society basic account for those who are new to banking.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Nobody is disputing the fact that the Post Office card account is there and that, in theory, people can use it to get their cash out. The point is that it is so impossibly difficult for people to take that option.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I was going to come to that, although I do not accept the basic premise of Alasdair Morgan's argument or of other arguments that there is not a level playing field. As at 10 January, the total number of benefit customers requesting Post Office card accounts was about 26,500, which is made up of nearly 9,000 child benefit customers and about 17,500 veterans agency customers.

We are not managing people's choices, as has been suggested, particularly by Stewart Stevenson; we are informing individuals of the choices available. The intention is gradually to build up the number of benefit customers and pensioners who are paid through bank accounts and the Post Office card account, starting from April.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

If Stewart Stevenson does not mind, I think that I probably need to make progress—although I would normally have enjoyed Stewart's intervention.

As the system proves itself in practice, the Government will increase the number of people who are paid through those accounts. Those pension and benefit customers who have opted for a card account, but who have not yet opened one and sent their account details to the DWP, will continue to be paid by order book or giro as they are now.

The Government will not, I assure members, take risks with the money of pensioners and other benefit and tax credit recipients. The service will not be accepted until it has been proven to be reliable and robust, and until it provides a high-quality service to customers. The DWP will have an important role in taking customers through the changes, including how they get their money from their account at the post office if they wish to do that. Customers will be supplied with information clearly setting out their account options and enabling them freely to choose the account that is right for them. That is as it should be.

All the Government materials set out the key features of the various accounts and the availability of post office access and of the card account at every turn. There will be no special eligibility criteria and no cap on the number of people who can opt for the card account at post offices. Customers will choose the account that they want. That information is contained in a leaflet—I was pleased to hear references to it during the debate—which ensures that customers' options are known.

There is a Scottish dimension to this. It is for the Department for Work and Pensions and the UK Government to ensure that people in Scotland have the necessary information about the changes and about their choices. Following representations that I made to the Department for Work and Pensions and UK ministers, partly in response to colleagues, the DWP is taking steps to address some of the concerns that have been expressed in Scotland, and it has planned a range of activities to make the changes understood. Those will include a meeting with key Scottish organisations, including Age Concern Scotland, at a Scottish round-table special interest group. Representations that I have made are being taken on board by colleagues down south to ensure that the full range of choices is available to Scottish customers, and that the information is properly disseminated.

I accept that post offices provide socially important services and facilities that are of particular importance to deprived communities—I say that from my personal experience. In recognition of that, we have established a £2 million funding programme to develop retail facilities at post offices in deprived urban areas. I do not see many members in the chamber who are overly concerned about deprived urban areas—with the honourable exception of Dennis Canavan. A key objective of the programme is to ensure that this vital community facility remains accessible to all. On 3 March we began to accept applications for grants from the fund. I encourage all eligible sub-postmasters to apply.

I thank David Mundell for providing us with an opportunity to debate this issue. He said that he had secured a record number of members' debates, but I have probably answered more than my fair share of such debates. I hope that I have answered some of the members' questions tonight. I assure colleagues that I am happy to return in correspondence to those matters of continuing concern that I was unable to deal with directly, especially issues that colleagues would like to raise with UK ministers. I would be glad to assist them in that.

Meeting closed at 17:31.