asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received about the frequency of payments to those in receipt of the State retirement pension.
I refer my hon. Friend to my speech in the debate last Tuesday.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a great deal of worry and uncertainty has been created for pensioners through recent publicity? Will he put that right as soon as possible? Further, will he confirm to the House that, if there is any question of fortnightly payments to pensioners, one week will be in advance?
I gave a very clear assurance, in the debate last Tuesday, to pensioners and all those in receipt of social security benefits that it would remain open to anyone who wished to do so to draw those benefits over the post office counter. It is a sad fact that many people have been told, quite erroneously, that benefits were to be paid into bank accounts. That never was true. There never was any such proposal, and I am happy to make that clear.I also made it clear in the debate on Tuesday that the proposal in the study by officials was that benefits should, in general, be paid fortnightly. I also made it clear that, if that were to be done, one week would be paid in advance and one in arrears. In the light of the debate, and considering what was said on both sides of the House, the Government are considering how and whether to carry the matter forward.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what impression he received from representatives of sub-postmasters after the lobby last Wednesday? Secondly, will he confirm that the general desire is for weekly payments? Finally, when will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement to the House?
I had a full and valuable exchange of views with representatives of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. I believe that they recognise the value of the assurances that I gave in the House. I recognise the strength of feeling that they represented about what they had seen as a threat to their livelihood. I gave a clear undertaking in the House that the Government would do nothing to threaten the network of sub-post offices across the country. I am happy to repeat that.The Government are considering how to carry forward the study that has been undertaken with the advice of Sir Derek Rayner. We are taking the fullest account of views expressed from all parts of the House. I cannot say when we shall be able to make a statement, but I recognise the great desire that we should make our intentions clear as soon as possible.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that representatives of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters were heartened by their meeting with him last Wednesday and welcomed his assurances?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend.
Since the right hon. Gentleman is looking for ways to reduce the cost of paying out benefits, will he note that in the largest sub-post office in the East End, every morning the sub-postmistress receives from Newcastle on average 60 pension books, each in a separate envelope, separately addressed to her, sealed and posted? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Sir Derek Rayner might look at that?
It certainly sounds like something that should be looked at. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the enormous complexity of the operation at Newcastle. Pensions are paid by reference to the national insurance number rather than to the recipient's address. It is therefore necessary for the pension to be sent to the post office nearest the address given, in a separate envelope.Of the total of £130 million that my Department pays as an agency fee to the Post Office, only about £30 million goes to sub-post offices, although they transact some 70 per cent. of the benefit business done by the Post Office on behalf of my Department. That is a matter that we shall have to look at carefully.