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Post Office Card Account

Volume 481: debated on Monday 20 October 2008

8. When he plans to make an announcement on the outcome of the bidding process to operate the Post Office card account. (227679)

9. When he expects to announce the successful bidder for the contract to provide the Post Office card account. (227680)

This is a commercial tendering process, bound by UK and European law, and we will announce the outcome when that is completed.

Given that 60 per cent. of rural communities have a post office but only 4 per cent. of them have a bank, what assurances can the Secretary of State give the 6,500 Post Office card account holders in Westmorland and Lonsdale that they will be able to have easy access to their money and benefits under the card system replacing POCA?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tendering process involves access criteria, which bidders must meet. He will understand that I am limited in what I can say on that procurement process, because it is ongoing. I am sure that he welcomes the £1.7 billion that the Government are investing and the access criteria that have been put in place for post offices for the first time.

In May 2007, the then Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), announced to the House that a decision on the Post Office card account successor contract would be taken in early 2008, yet that decision has still to be taken. The continuing doubt and uncertainty is damaging what remains of the post office network and is causing great concern to the 4.3 million POCA users. Recent press speculation says that the decision is being deliberately delayed again because of the Glenrothes by-election. Will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely when this long-awaited and crucial decision will be announced?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the press speculation is not accurate. We will announce the decision when it has been taken, but I am sure that he understands that it is important to take it on the basis of proper procurement practices—that is the right thing to do.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but psychological damage is being done to the network, and postmasters and postmistresses wish to have clarity. Does he accept that Labour Members, too, feel that the earlier this decision can be taken, the better? As far as we are concerned, only one decision can be taken.

I am going to start to sound like a broken record. I am sure that my hon. Friend would like me to obey procurement processes in the right way. I totally understand the importance of the post office network for our communities, and that is why we are taking this decision in a careful and planned way.

Before the House sat again, I took a petition and a large number of campaign cards urging that the Post Office retained the Post Office card account. I did so largely because people in Brackla, in my constituency, were very concerned that they would not be able easily to access their benefits. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that people’s ability to access their benefits will be taken into consideration when viability is examined and the POCA contract is awarded?

This Department needs to play its role, as do all Departments, in sustaining, rather than undermining, the post office network. To that end, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Post Office card account will not be the last option offered to new pensioners, but that it will be offered on an equal basis? Will he consider paying housing benefit and local housing allowance on the POCA? Will he also ensure that our constituents can pay their utility bills by direct debit on the POCA to save them money?

Of course they can do that already from the post office through the 27 accounts that are available. It is important that people have access to direct debits to reduce the cost of their bills. I can assure him that we understand the importance of the post office network. Ensuring that people can access their benefits and their money has been one of the key criteria during the whole tendering process.

Four million people access pensions and benefits through the Post Office card account. It is not surprising that 3 million postcards have flooded in to protest about the problems that exist. Some 3,000 post offices are apparently at risk. When the Secretary of State reviewed the file on taking up his present post, did he look at the rationale for the original decision to see whether proper account had been taken of the social and political impact of the re-letting of the contract which would seem to outweigh any other reason in the decision that successive Ministers have refused to take—to declare that POCA should go to the Post Office?

I shall not give a running commentary on what was done at various stages. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to act legally. As I have now said many times, we will make the announcement when the decision has been properly taken.

Several of the small islands in my constituency have a post office, but no bank. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that pensioners on those islands will be able to collect their pension at the post office without having to open a bank account?

That is why, in response to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), I said that access criteria had been built into the tendering process. Once we have made the decision, we will announce it.