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Post Office Electricity Payment Cards


 

 

This speech was given during a debate on rural post offices on 24 March 2004
 

Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): The motion refers to

"the significant role played by local post offices in both rural and urban areas".

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has told us about the situation in rural areas, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) made a thoughtful speech about the situation in south Birmingham. Like my hon. Friend, I wish to concentrate on rural areas, and in doing so, talk about the problem facing people in Norfolk because of Powergen's actions, which my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) mentioned briefly in an intervention.

People sometimes underestimate just how different things are in rural areas compared with urban areas. My constituency covers 350 square miles: Greater London, which contains 74 parliamentary constituencies, covers 650 square miles. My constituency is more than half the size of Greater London. My right hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, has a constituency some three times the size of mine—at about 1,100 square miles, I think. Post offices in rural areas are part of the social fabric of local communities, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield acknowledged when he was dealing with urban areas.

Mrs. Shephard: I thank my hon. Friend for referring to the entirely different problems faced by people in far-flung rural areas. I have a letter from the postmaster at Banham in my constituency, who says that as a result of Powergen's decisions, residents will now have to travel nine miles to the nearest pay-point outlet and nine miles back. For many elderly, disabled or less well-off people, that is not an option.

Mr. Bacon: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Such a journey is not an option for many people. That is why I have taken up the issue with Powergen and with the Post Office, to ask whether they can renegotiate. Indeed, I have also taken it up with Ofgem, to see whether it thinks that Powergen is acting against the public interest. I, too, represent constituents who will have to travel some distance to get electricity swipe cards topped up - to a neighbouring market town, in this case, as a result of Powergen's decision to withdraw the contract from the Post Office.

People in Roydon in my constituency, some of whom are on limited incomes and do not have cars, can knock on the doors and Mr. and Mrs. West will open up after hours, even at 9.30 at night, so that a young mother with two children who has suddenly run out of electricity can be reconnected. Effectively, that is a social service, and there seems to be no reason why Powergen should unilaterally remove the contract from the Post Office.

I received from Powergen a letter of the sort that we all receive from time to time, explaining how it was enhancing its service. There is a German word, "Verschlimmbesserung", which, loosely translated, means the process by which, as things are improved, they get worse. We are familiar with that process from many different aspects of life, and it is certainly applicable in this case. I look forward to receiving a sensible reply from Powergen and hearing about a reconsideration of this ill-considered and ill-thought-out policy.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Is my hon. Friend aware of another relevant German expression that is difficult to translate into any other language? What is happening displays that Powergen has anything other than "Fingerspitzengefühl" - a fingertip feel.

Mr. Bacon: I am aware of that expression; my hon. Friend makes a good point, and Powergen needs to reconsider the issue with some care.

The second issue that I want to raise involves a specific problem that arose some three years ago because of the decision of Mrs. Rogers, the then sub-postmistress at Coldham Green, Deopham, to retire from running the post office in Pie Lane. As she was retiring, she requested that the post box in her front garden be taken away. Indeed, the parish council suggested that the box should be resited somewhere else, which seemed perfectly reasonable. It also seemed reasonable that Mrs. Rogers should no longer have a post box in her front garden when she was no longer running the post office.

The problem that subsequently arose has endured for so long because of Royal Mail's failure locally - I stress the word "locally" - to understand, recognise or acknowledge the difference between resiting and removing. Thus, the local Royal Mail manager's response to concerned local residents, to the parish council and to me has been to ask why residents of Coldham Green should have an additional post box. In fact, all that local residents are asking for is the relocation of a previously existing box in a slightly different place. The local Royal Mail manager has gone so far as to allege that there is a post box in a place where there is none.

I have gone to the chief executive and chairman of Royal Mail, who have been helpful, and I look forward to receiving a sensible response. I have walked the route that people must now take, and I can see how dangerous it is. Without a post box in their area, local people must walk to the other end of the village down a road that has a 60 mph speed limit—although it certainly should have a lower limit. Young mothers with prams must push their small children down the lane to the post box at the other end of the village, but there is no verge and there is nowhere for them to hide. That is not a practical option, and many people refuse to take it and are thus deprived of a service. I hope to get a sensible answer out of Royal Mail in due course, and also some indication that it will encourage its local managers to take a slightly more helpful and interested approach. Postwatch is also escalating the priority attached to the local complaint, and I hope that there will be a resolution.

As for the so-called neutral position on the Post Office card account, a number of hon. Members have referred to the apparent difference between what we, and our constituents, are experiencing in our daily lives and what is happening over there on Planet Hewitt, where there seems to be no difference between the treatment of the options on offer, and they are apparently being laid out in a neutral way. How can Age Concern, Citizens Advice, the National Consumer Council, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Communication Workers Union and the National Federation of Women's Institutes all have expressed concern about the obstacles and difficulties in opening a Post Office card account, yet the Government and Ministers on Planet Hewitt do not seem to think that there is a problem? The Minister should be careful before he takes on the National Federation of Women's Institutes. He should recall what happened to his boss when he tried to do that.

It is absolutely clear that there is an issue. Indeed, the guidance given to Department for Work and Pensions staff, contains this statement:

"We need to pay most of these customers into bank accounts which cost 1p, rather than into Post Office card accounts, which cost up to 30 times more. You should be aiming to get nine out of 10 new claimants into bank accounts, with a small proportion paid through Post Office card accounts."

That does not sound very neutral to me.

That prompts another question. Quite apart from the fact that there is not the neutrality that the Government allege, why should the card accounts cost so much more than bank accounts? After all, lottery terminals have been put into convenience stores, post offices and small shops throughout the country. The proposed payment system is relatively simple, and ought not to cost 30 times more than bank accounts. If one looked into the problem, I suspect that one would discover that, as is often the case with Government IT projects, the Government's IT advice has cost more than it should.

As hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who introduced the debate, have said, the key issue is choice. Theoretically, at least, the Government are in favour in choice. Indeed, the Prime Minister's Office of Public Services Reform, in the pamphlet, "Principles into Practice", published in March 2002, said:

"Choice acknowledges that consumers of public services should increasingly be given the kind of options that they take for granted in other walks of life."

Amen to that. The Government should back up their rhetoric and give our constituents in both urban and rural areas the kind of choice that they expect.