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Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 21 December 2010

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to highlight the need for a more co-ordinated approach to the teaching of financial capability to ensure that no young person leaves school without the benefit of that critical life skill.

Financial capability can be briefly described as the ability to manage one’s own finances and to become an informed consumer of financial services. Some excellent work is being done in schools, and I shall refer to it shortly, but more needs to be done. The delivery of financial education in schools is patchy, as there is no requirement to provide it. My son Samuel will leave his excellent school in a few months’ time without having received a single lesson in financial education, although the term PHSE stands for “personal, health, social and economic education”.

Before I go into more detail, let me emphasise that I am a proponent of prevention rather than cure, and that I recognise the vital effort that goes into counselling people out of debt. However, I believe we have a problem that a co-ordinated approach to financial literacy will do much to alleviate. All Members are aware of the high levels of personal debt and the untold stress that much of it causes. Each day a staggering 372 people are declared bankrupt, and citizens advice bureaux are currently dealing with some 9,400 new debt problems every working day. A recent survey by another highly effective debt advice organisation, Christians Against Poverty, showed that 74% of its clients had visited a GP while suffering from stress and other medical problems caused by debt.

I have had 20 years’ experience of running a law firm, and during that time the biggest single cause of marital discord among those entering my firm’s doors seeking divorce advice has been money differences. Sadly, many couples enter relationships without being capable of addressing financial challenges together. It is partly because I have witnessed those problems for many years, and the huge personal cost that they entail, that I raise this issue today.

The cost to the national budget of dealing with the ramifications of poor financial literacy must be vast, not only because of relationship breakdowns but because of the implications for the health of individuals and families. A recent study by Aviva and a leading psychologist at City university found that those with sensible financial plans were happier overall and had a stronger sense of financial well-being, and that that was the case regardless of salary.

I believe that the big society, represented by both voluntary and commercial organisations and by government locally and nationally, can work together effectively to give young people and their parents the tools to draw up positive and informed financial plans that will help to secure their future happiness. The need for that is pressing.

Let me offer an example of best practice. Two years ago in my constituency Will Spendilow, a former chief IT architect for Barclays bank, started to visit Congleton high school and Eaton Bank school in my constituency on a voluntary basis. He helps GCSE and A-level students to understand the importance of financial planning, using the DebtCred curriculum, one of many that are available. It empowers children to set life goals and choices, helps teenagers to articulate their short-term and long-term financial goals, and helps students to budget by explaining what proportion of a wage is spent on essentials. Young people learn about the implications and the costs of borrowing; they also learn how to read a bank statement, put together a budget, and distinguish between financial products.

Mr Spendilow’s work has been received enthusiastically by schools and recognised by the high sheriff of Cheshire, Diana Barbour, who has congratulated him on his “sterling achievements”. At the end of one of his classes a teacher said to the young people, “That is the best and most valuable PHSE lesson that you have ever had.” However, when I asked Mr Spendilow what provision there would be if he did not teach financial capability, he said that he did not know of any.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising a subject that I consider to be tremendously important. I particularly endorse what she has said about Christians Against Poverty and the citizens advice bureaux, which operate in my constituency. Does she share my huge disappointment that there is no Treasury Minister present to respond—[Interruption.] I was not aware that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) was a Treasury Minister. Is he the Treasury Minister who will respond to the debate?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I believe that financial literacy is an essential element of every young person’s education. Including it in the curriculum would decrease the cost to so many people—and to the nation—of personal debt, family breakdown and ill health. Even more important, it would enable all young people to embark on adulthood with a vital tool, and to realise their full potential in life. I hope that the Minister agrees that this is a vital issue that we need to address sooner rather than later.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Government to send a Whip rather than a Minister to respond to the debate?

Members may be disappointed that no Treasury Minister is present, but let me say in fairness that the Whip is a Minister. He is part of the Government, and he has the right to speak from the Front Bench. That is the position. There may be disappointment, but I am sure that we shall hear full and thorough answers. We all look forward to the response from the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill).

Let me end by saying that I know my concerns are shared by a number of Members, and that I look forward to hearing the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) shortly.

I wish to raise the issue of the funding settlement for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for two reasons. First, it is important to my constituents, many of whom work in the Cumbernauld branch of HMRC, one of the largest tax offices in the country. Secondly, it is important to the nation for our tax to be collected efficiently and effectively.

I have several questions for the Minister about the settlement that HMRC received in the comprehensive spending review. It mandates overall resource savings of 15% and efficiency savings of 25%. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified the precise meaning of those two figures. To what budget does the 25% refer? What proportion of the 15% overall resource saving will be met from efficiencies, and what proportion will be met through a reduction in the scope of HMRC’s activities? How does the Minister define an efficiency saving? And—this is the most important question for my constituents in Cumbernauld—what is the Minister’s most recent estimate of the number of redundancies that he expects at HMRC across the country during the spending review period, and what proportion of them will be compulsory?

Will the Minister confirm that neither the £900 million for combating tax avoidance nor the £100 million for reducing error, both of which were announced in the comprehensive spending review, will be additional money for HMRC? Will he also explain whether the figures refer to annual allocations, or to money redirected to these purposes over the entire spending review period? How does the Minister expect HMRC to achieve such a redirection of resources, in the context of significant cuts to its overall resource budget?

I would like to place HMRC’s funding settlement in a broader context and draw attention to some specific problems faced by my constituents working in the Cumbernauld office.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the hugely increased bureaucracy that HMRC will have to deal with because of the change to child benefit, which will require HMRC in some sense to monitor the incomes and outgoings of millions of families across the country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which speaks to the overall context in which HMRC will be operating.

We know that there is no direct correlation between reduced funding and increased output. The productivity of individual public servants can increase, but overall output can still decline. There comes a point when any organisation can no longer do more with less. If resources are reduced too far and too hastily, it will end up doing less with less, even if productivity increases. Does the Minister accept that it will be extremely difficult to deliver the additional revenue and improved customer service that we need from HMRC in the context of large reductions in overall expenditure?

Many of the savings that the Government talk about will be made through redundancies and restructuring. Staff motivation and industrial relations at HMRC are already poor. These problems have been recognised by HMRC, which was the subject of heavy criticism in the capability review published by the Cabinet Office in 2009. The review found that only 25% of HMRC staff, compared with 61% of senior civil servants, were proud to work for the Department. In the 2009 staff survey, only 11% of all staff and 17% of senior civil servants felt that change is well managed in HMRC.

We know that working in HMRC is often a difficult job. Dealing with people who are recalcitrant in paying their tax is, I suggest—without direct experience of it—often not much fun, yet staff morale is extremely important. I worry that a combination of low staff morale and further funding cuts is likely to lead to further problems for HMRC. Staff in Cumbernauld, for example, are deeply concerned about the restructuring that is taking place among staff in the benefits and credits section, a reform that is taking place two years ahead of the planned move to universal credit.

These staff have been threatened with compulsory relocation to other tax offices in East Kilbride and Livingston, a source of particular concern for staff with child care and caring responsibilities. I hear that there are fewer jobs available in these new offices than there are posts in Cumbernauld. Staff who are not redeployed might be labelled as surplus, with an uncertain future. Staff in payroll and human resources for the whole of HMRC are also based in Cumbernauld. They are extremely concerned about potential redundancies following the introduction of next generation human resources.

Does the Minister expect that these changes will result in redundancies in Cumbernauld, or will the Cumbernauld office perhaps expand its functions and its staffing? More broadly, can he give us an assurance that HMRC will improve the manner in which it manages change in its organisation?

Finally, I would like to ask a broader question about HMRC’s strategic vision. Does the Minister accept that there is a tension between announcing Britain’s business- friendly credentials to the world and cracking down on tax evasion, particularly by companies and wealthy individuals? In particular, what view does he take of the remarks that David Hartnett, Permanent Secretary, made in the Financial Times last August, when he suggested that

“HMRC is packed full of very intelligent people but we are sometimes too black and white about the law”?

Does the Minister believe that it is possible for tax officials to be “too black and white” about the antisocial behaviour of tax evaders? I can assure him that my constituents, and no doubt those of every hon. Member, do not take that view.

A well resourced and properly motivated HMRC is crucial to the important work of Government. I ask the Minister to provide more detail on the implications of HMRC’s funding settlement, and to consider the assumptions underpinning it.

First, I wish all a wonderful Christmas.

As my contribution has been transferred from the education category to the Treasury category, I will take full advantage of the Treasury’s love of statistics and utilise them well in my speech. As my requests are generally related to the Department for Education, with a sparkling of festive spirit it will be nice and easy to secure agreement on all my requests.

I strongly believe that we have a duty to ensure that young people are equipped to make informed financial decisions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who made an excellent speech on the subject. I have been working with the Personal Financial Education Group, the Consumer Financial Education Body, and Martin Lewis of to set up an all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people.

The purpose of the APPG will be to provide a medium through which MPs, peers and organisations with an interest in financial education can discuss the current provision on financial education in schools; ensure that young people are equipped to make informed financial decisions; help make resources and qualifications available to young people in education; support schools in the delivery of financial capability; and encourage the introduction of a requirement on schools to provide financial education.

Recent studies have shown that 94% of people think that financial education for young people is important in the current environment. Society is changing, making financial education ever more important. This year for the first time we saw that debit card use overtook the use of money. Long gone are the days when people were paid weekly in cash and were able to budget to the point where they ran out of money. We now have more direct debits, more standing orders and more contracts. Having been a councillor for 10 years before becoming an MP, I saw among the residents whom I represented that many of those unfortunate enough to lose their job would quickly be overwhelmed by the outgoings from their bank account, even when they thought that they were not spending any money.

We receive increasingly complicated marketing messages. One point that was highlighted to me was the worrying number of people who think the higher the APR, the better. Young people will never be able to get 100%-plus mortgages or to repair past financial mistakes through rising house prices and start again. In these challenging economic times, 69% of parents are concerned that their children will get into debt in the future. Less than a quarter of parents feel very confident about educating their children in how to manage money.

This was brought home to me last Friday when I and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), with whom I share an office, held a training day with Citizens Advice, R3 and Nationwide building society to train us as MPs and our staff in how to deal with people who are in financial difficulty. Sixty per cent. of Citizens Advice’s work relates to debt and benefits, with the average client owing £16,970, which would take an average of 93 years to pay off at a rate that they can afford. I am sure all MPs share my concerns about the impact of debt. Interestingly, 91% of those who admitted to financial mistakes believe that financial education could have helped them avoid making those mistakes. I am sure a few MPs were included in that survey.

I believe schools have an essential role to play, and that is widely supported. Some 91% of teachers and parents agree that it is important that children learn to budget from a young age.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the cracking work he is doing in establishing the APPG. Does he agree that what we need to do better in schools is not only encourage young people to take qualifications, but mainstream financial education into the curriculum? One idea from a head teacher at Goole was that we should include it on the curriculum as part of functional maths.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He has already put his name on the APPG list, and he will have a very important role to play in it. I hope many other MPs will put their names down too. Through working with teachers and teacher organisations, we will find the best way to engage with young children. Young people will support that too, as 97% of 11 to 17-year-olds think it is important to learn about money in school. School provision for personal financial education is still patchy, however, and 72% of parents think not enough has been done in the past to educate children about financial matters.

While there are many examples of excellent work, often led by the PFEG or banks and building societies, far too many schools have no, or extremely limited, provision. Through the APPG, we want to drive up standards and participation. Ideally, all children should have access to standard, consistent and engaging provision, but in the meantime we must do all we can to maximise participation.

My Christmas wish is for Members to join the APPG. I am sure all Members have their pens poised, so I will inform them that the group’s official launch will be on 31 January between 4.30 pm and 6.30 pm in the Jubilee Room, with Martin Lewis from MoneySavingExpert. I am aware that piles of Christmas cards will currently be covering hon. Members’ desks, but among them is an invitation—it will already have landed—so I ask them to keep an eye out for it.

As part of the group’s work, we will be looking to promote a balanced response. There are many different challenges ahead. Everybody is broadly supportive, but we must progress in a way that everybody can get behind and support. We have therefore been working with over 30 organisations, including banks and building societies, financial institutions, charitable organisations, schools and teaching organisations and, as I have said, Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert with, crucially, his 6.4 million subscribers, who will be encouraged to support this scheme.

At Christmas families face the greatest temptation to make the wrong financial decisions, so now would be a great time for us to make a difference. We should imagine what a difference it would make to our casework if people were able to make better and more-informed decisions.

Before I call the next speaker, may I wish the House—Members, staff and visitors—all the best for Christmas, and may we all have a good new year?

I echo those wishes of good will and merriment to the House.

Before I start talking about choice and competition in the banking sector, I would like to put on record my thanks to the Building Societies Association and the pressure group Compass for giving me assistance in preparing for this debate, and to the fantastic staff of the Treasury Committee, who have provided excellent briefings to me and other Members throughout our ongoing inquiry into choice and competition in the sector.

The financial crisis had a major impact on the shape of the banking sector. There has been widespread consolidation, and concerns have been raised that competition in the sector is not working—with, for example, investigations by the Office of Fair Trading into overdraft charges—and that there is now an ever greater lack of choice and diversity in financial services. That is borne out by the latest OFT figures on market concentration. In the personal current account market, the five largest providers in the country have a 73% market share. In the mortgage market, they make up over 75% of gross lending. They have cornered over 90% of the credit card market as well. By way of comparison, in Spain, the US and Germany, the five largest providers have less than 50% of the personal current account market. In all but a couple of cases, the largest providers are banks. There has been just one new start-up retail bank, Metro Bank, since 2008. These figures demonstrate that there is a lack of choice and diversity in the sector, which, of course, also reduces competition.

I believe we can increase choice and competition by growing and expanding the mutual sector. I hope the Government agree with me on that, particularly as a commitment was given in the coalition agreement to

“bring forward detailed proposals to foster diversity in financial services…and create a more competitive banking industry”,

in part by promoting mutuals.

But why mutuals, and what can they offer that standard banks cannot? First, mutuals are democratic. Banks are accountable to shareholders who demand a rising share price and a big dividend, whereas mutuals, collectively owned by their customers, have a collective of people who vote on the direction they wish the institution to take.

I have been listening closely to my hon. Friend’s comments. Given the Government’s commitment to what they call the big society, does my hon. Friend agree that mutuals seem to be a perfect example of collective self-organisation of the type the Government talk about?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I shall expand on that matter a little later. An example of the participation of members of mutuals is displayed when one attends a building society annual general meeting. The participation rates in such AGMs have increased sharply over the years, and some have member panels, which play an enhanced role in the management of the organisation. I am in favour of markets, but properly regulated ones. That means that we need to redemocratise the market so that it serves people, rather than having things the other way round, which is an avenue we have gone down too much over the past couple of decades. Giving life to mutuals is a good way of redemocratising the financial services sector.

Secondly, mutuals add biodiversity to the financial services sector; a thriving mutuals sector adds to the diversity of the financial system. The more diversified the financial system in terms of size, ownership and structure of businesses, the better able it is to withstand the strains produced by normal business cycles and we can also avoid the herd instinct commonly displayed in the market over recent times.

Thirdly, mutuals have a lesser appetite for indulging in risky financial activities and so, on the whole, they weathered the storm well during the global financial crisis. For example, building society mortgage arrears are less than two thirds of those of the market as a whole. Building societies are also, thankfully, legally barred from taking positions in derivatives, foreign currency and commodity markets, which is where other financial organisations have found themselves in deep trouble. Where mutuals have run into difficulty, as the Dunfermline building society did in March 2009, it has been because they have moved away from the traditional mutual business model. So a growth in mutuals will not only reduce exposure to risky financial activities, but bring systemic advantages. It will foster a culture that moves away from the risky, reckless behaviours that we have seen precipitate the crisis, and so we can reduce the chances of that reoccurring.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech on an important issue. Does his argument go on to say that the large banks should be broken up into smaller ones, as in the example from the United States?

I do not wish to pre-empt the inquiry being carried out by the Treasury Committee. I have some sympathy for those views, but I would like to continue to hear the evidence that my Committee is taking on this matter and read some of the submissions to the Independent Commission on Banking before coming to a firm view.

The fourth argument that I make in favour of mutuals is that they have strong local links and roots in local communities. Mutuals are often regionally based and therefore often have a better understanding of those they seek to serve because they understand and are rooted in those communities. Finally, mutuals will undoubtedly help to promote competition. As I have mentioned, building societies do not have to pay dividends to shareholders, so they can use their funds either to pay higher savings rates or provide lower mortgage rates. It is no surprise that they regularly top the “best buy” tables.

As the Nationwide building society’s head office is in Swindon, I fully support the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. To further strengthen them, may I say that the lack of competition will lead to higher costs and charges for customers?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I do not wish to speak for too long, so I will just conclude by talking a bit about Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. As we all know, Northern Rock was nationalised on 18 February 2008, having been demutualised in 1997. After it demutualised, it had moved away from the traditional mutual business model and famously came unstuck in the summer of 2007. Likewise, Bradford & Bingley was taken into public ownership on 29 September 2008, having demutualised in December 2000. It, too, had run into trouble at the height of the crisis. For all the reasons that I have mentioned, we should remutualise Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley as soon as we can.

In answer to a written question on 3 November, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who I am disappointed to see is not present, given that he was here for Treasury questions earlier, said:

“The Government have made it clear that they are not a permanent investor in UK banks and that their intention, over time, is to dispose of all the investments in an orderly way.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 825W.]

So I ask the Minister who is here, what is the Government’s current view on the issues that I have raised? Are the Government open to remutualisation as a way of meeting their promise in the coalition agreement to promote mutuals? If not, why not? How else do they propose to promote mutuals as promised? Has the Treasury carried out a feasibility study of the remutualisation of Northern Rock and of Bradford & Bingley? If it has not, I call on the Government to do so and publish the findings of that study, so that we might have a proper national debate on the issue.

If the Minister is unable to reply to my detailed questions today, will he undertake to ensure that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury provides me with details of the same? I cannot emphasise to the House how important I think those issues are, because if we are serious about ensuring that our constituents do not have to pay the price for the global financial crisis that in turn contributed to and caused the recession, we as a collective absolutely need to get a grip on such matters.

May I extend my good wishes to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all Members and staff?

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), because I, too, wish to raise a matter relating to high street banks. I shall discuss the proposals to withdraw the ability to write cheques, and in referring to that issue my remarks will in part be the reflections of a new Member—perhaps appropriate for this time of year—and draw on my early experience in a new role.

In August, I received a letter from a constituent, Miss Patricia Keats, who wrote to tell me that she was 87 years old, and since the closure of her local post office had found it difficult to get hold of cash. With her pension paid directly into her bank account, she found it convenient to ask a friend to take out cash for her and then to use her cheque book to pay that person. In addition, Miss Keats told me how useful her cheque book is for paying people who help her at home, such as her chiropodist; and how useful it is, when she watches a disaster unfold on TV, such as in Haiti or in Pakistan, for sending a donation. So, she wrote that she has real concerns about the banks’ proposals.

I am afraid that when I received Miss Keats’s letter I did not respond as thoroughly as I might have. I replied, simply pointing out that the proposal is fairly distant; that it will not come in until 2018; and that alternatives are being considered. I regret my response: I did not consider the issue sufficiently thoroughly, take account of her personal circumstances and wishes or do as much as I should have done to represent her interests. I am pleased to have the opportunity to put that matter right by going into the issue in more detail today.

This is a matter for the Payments Council, the organisation that directs the strategy for UK payments. The industry set it up in 2007 to ensure that payment systems and services meet the needs of payment service providers, users and the wider economy. Last year, the council’s board decided to set a target date of 2018 for closing central cheque clearing.

Some 4 million cheques are still written every day, so there is still a large number although it fell by 12% between 2000 and 2008, leading retailers such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer to refuse to accept them in their stores. Many people will know from their everyday experience that cheque usage is falling as people make payments by other methods, such as direct debits and internet banking.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, but I have a member of staff who does not know how to write a cheque and never has. There seem to be two economies.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but somebody in the older age group has drawn the issue to my attention, and I shall go on to mention how it affects not just those people but others.

It is true, none the less, that those most resisting change are older residents, such as Miss Keats, who often do not have internet access or are uncomfortable with the open-ended commitment of a direct debit, which involves a supplier, frequently a large, faceless corporation, being able to put its hand into their bank account.

I am myself of a generation that grew up with a cheque book, and I do not wish to see them go, despite having seen cheques used inappropriately; I am thinking about the idiot in the student union bar who, rather than taking out some cash, insists on paying for half a pint of bitter with a cheque, to the irritation of other customers and bar staff alike. It is clear that people generally do not want cheques to go. For settling an account with a provider of goods or services, sending a cheque is a simple and easy method of payment—not least because the cheque book stub is a convenient reminder of which bills have been paid.

Charities in particular do not want cheques to go; they fear that that would mean a decline in their incomes because many of their donors are nervous about other methods. Small businesses do not want them to go either, because it is easy to reconcile accounts when payments are made by cheque, often with invoice numbers written on the back.

I fully support that point about small businesses. As one who has spent many years reconciling accounts, I think that too often internet bank accounts do not show the full details, while it is always crystal clear who a cheque has come from.

Absolutely. I spent 25 years running a small business and I know that the information on the back of cheques is of great value.

I am pleased that the Government recognise the seriousness of the issue. I appreciate the recent ministerial letter that recognised people’s concerns. It acknowledged that no decision on closure will be taken before 2016 and that that would depend on suitable replacement methods having been established. I am also pleased that the Government welcome the Payments Council’s commitment to reassure cheque users that their interests will not be ignored. But it is not enough simply to say that 2018 is a long way off, and it is not helpful to tell people that a facility will be withdrawn in the future without telling them what the alternatives might be. Individuals, businesses and charities want certainty about what might be happening.

I hope that this afternoon I have put right a wrong in my response to Miss Keats and that I have done justice to the points that she raised by asking the Minister to go a little further than he has until now and respond to the final plea that Miss Keats made in her letter that he

“do what he can do to support the very many people who want and need to keep cheques.”

It gives me great pleasure to respond to the Members who have contributed to this debate. I stand as the Treasury Minister who sits next to the Chancellor at all the meetings at No. 11, even if I am generally not allowed to speak in the House.

My hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) raised the issue of improving financial literacy and education for the young. Over the past decade, people’s financial habits have changed considerably. High personal debt coupled with low savings are something that we need to address, especially when they are looked at in the context of the financial crisis and the ageing population. There is no point in giving consumers detailed information about annual percentage rates and other financial data in connection with products if they do not understand what an APR is. When one sees the rates of interest charged by credit and store cards or doorstep lenders, that brings home the need for better financial education.

As a Government, we want people to take greater personal responsibility for their finances. As my hon. Friends said, giving people access to financial advice and education is an important part of that. That is why we have tasked the Consumer Financial Education Body, or CFEB, to deliver a free financial advice service by spring next year. That will improve financial literacy and help consumers to take charge of their own finances. It may even save a few marriages along the way.

A vital component of the service will be the annual financial health check, to provide people with a holistic overview of their finances. In tandem, the CFEB supports financial education through the “Learning Money Matters” programme, which offers free advice and resources to schools that want to teach personal finance education. I remind the House that finance education is currently part of the personal, social, health and economic education syllabus for key stages 1 to 4. However, I was concerned to hear that the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton did not receive that tuition as part of the syllabus. As a parent, perhaps she could get in touch with her parent governor or head teacher to ensure that it is covered in future. I was pleased to hear how the banks are interacting with local schools to provide that type of tuition.

I, too, have received an invitation to the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people. I certainly look forward to attending on 31 January, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Dr Creasy), who are the co-chairmen of the group. As a fan of Martin Lewis, who appears regularly on GMTV, I know he reaches 6.4 million people through his website and his appearances—dare I suggest that that is fewer people than are watching this debate?

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) raised the issue of the HMRC settlement. As an employer, I know Cumbernauld well because the name appears on the prepaid envelopes when I send off my tax to that particular office. The office employs 1,500 staff and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that it has a key role in debt management and collection, and that there are no plans substantially to reduce numbers in that office.

As with all Departments, HMRC will deliver on its efficiency savings programme by concentrating on the core elements of the service it provides. In the case of HMRC, that means ensuring that resources are more efficiently focused on collecting revenue and providing a better service to the British taxpayer. As part of its settlement, HMRC will therefore improve the pay-as-you-earn system, so that there is greater use of real-time information, and extend its online resources to reduce the demands placed on contact centres.

HMRC will reinvest the £900 million in savings to tackle avoidance, evasion and criminal activity. Those savings will be recycled into activities working against tax avoidance, evasion and criminal attack to collect additional revenue of £7 billion per annum by 2014-15. That will deliver a more robust criminal deterrent against tax evasion and will increase the number of criminal prosecutions fivefold. There will also be a crackdown on offshore evasion, with the creation of a new dedicated team of investigators to catch those hiding offshore money. We wish to clear the backlog of PAYE cases by 2012 and stabilise the service in order to recover and improve customer service. Central to that will be undertaking the next stage of consultation on improving PAYE through the use of real-time information to bring improvements to employers and taxpayers. Of course, in the past, that has resulted in underpayments and overpayments, some of which had to be written off and some of which had to be collected at great expense.

A Whip is yet again speaking at the Dispatch Box for the first time and performing better than the normal Treasury Ministers, without the backing of any official. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that. I hope to see more of it happening in the future.

I think I will just continue. I have a very detailed brief that I am sure my right hon. Friends the Chief Secretary or the Chancellor will put into a detailed response. Given the time, I cannot go into the issues in detail, but there are a number of tables that I am sure will reassure the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. Suffice it to say, the work force and change plans are still being developed. Until those plans are completed, HMRC cannot say what the position will be on redundancies or exits.

I thank the Minister for his response. From what he said, can I take it that the Department will write to me with the detailed figures? Is that the position?

Yes, I am sure that that is the case. The first choice is to redeploy, but where that is not possible because of location or skills, exits will be used as a last resort. HMRC will recruit people if it cannot otherwise fill roles with people who have the right skills.

On the point about child benefit changes within a reducing settlement, the changes will be managed from within the settlement. Withdrawing child benefit from households with a higher rate taxpayer can be done within existing PAYE and self-assessment systems. HMRC will therefore not need to contact all 7.8 million households in receipt of child benefit. From a customer’s perspective, that delivery option does not place a burden on all child benefit claimants; it limits the impact to those households containing higher-rate taxpayers.

On the issue of whether the law is too black and white, I stress that tax evasion cannot be tolerated wherever it occurs. I was pleased that the Finance (No.3) Act 2010 closed a number of the loopholes that meant that people were not paying the tax that they should. To be fair, those loopholes were identified by the previous Government.

Much of the debate was focused on the banking system and I am sure that we all have had horror stories brought to our attention by our constituents. One of my constituents was in the Proudfoot supermarket making a purchase of about £5 and the checkout girl accidentally clocked up £50. That was corrected less than five minutes later, but it incurred an unauthorised overdraft fee and the bank refused to back down when contacted by me as the Member of Parliament. Fortunately, when I got the Yorkshire Post on to the issue it finally relented; such is the power of the press.

In response to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), the Government are clear that there should be more competition in the banking sector. The Independent Commission on Banking has been asked to consider reforms to the UK banking sector, including how to encourage greater competition. Following the commission’s report next year, the Government will bring forward specific proposals to foster diversity and increase competition, and I am sure that that will include a role for the mutual sector. I have nothing to add to the answer given by the Financial Secretary earlier, but I am sure that he will write to the hon. Gentleman following this debate.

On cheques, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) raised the potential—

I raised a number of detailed questions with the Minister, responses to which have not been forthcoming. I heard with interest the views of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about the response that the Minister is giving, bearing in mind that he has been called to do this at such short notice. However, I would be grateful if he explained why the Financial Secretary himself is not here, as he was here only a few hours ago. Will he undertake to ensure that I get detailed responses to the issues that I have raised?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. First, this has not happened at short notice—it has always been the plan for me to answer this debate. He had an opportunity earlier at Treasury questions to raise specific issues when the majority of the team were there. I am aware that I have only less than a minute left, which is why I want to move on to the next point. I am sure that he will get a detailed response, particularly about the way in which the banks, which are now largely in the public sector, are sold on or whatever. The Government will no doubt be looking at the best value for the taxpayer as well as the best service to business and individuals. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will write to him, and we will be making further announcements in the House at an appropriate time.

On the withdrawal of cheque facilities, it is true that the number of cheques issued has declined dramatically. More than 11 million cheques were written in 1990, and that figure declined to 3.5 million in 2009. A provisional date of 31 October 2018 has been set for the withdrawal of cheque facilities, with a final decision to be made by 2016. I, too, have received a letter from a constituent, which arrived this morning. It is from Mrs Hunter of Whitby, who tells me that she is over 90 years old and does not possess a computer or a laptop, or even a mobile phone or any credit or debit card, and so will find it very difficult to send money through the post to her family at Christmas or to make payments to charities. Her local post office, which was within walking distance, was closed when the previous Government were in office, so a journey to the Yorkshire building society or the Co-op would require a taxi journey or a bus ride. She is very concerned that elderly people without recourse to cheques will not find it easy to make payments. Similarly, many small businesses find the cheque system very convenient.

The Government believe that suitable alternatives must be in place for all users of cheques before the system can be phased out, and they welcome the new commitments made by the banking industry on 7 December. In those commitments, the industry recognises the importance of having in place proper alternatives to cheques for those who rely on them most, such as the elderly, the housebound, charities and small businesses. The industry has said that a potential alternative to cheque facilities may include a paper system. Of course, if cheques were to be phased out, it would also be the end of the famous phrase, “The cheque is in the post.”

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have a very peaceful and comfortable Christmas, and let us look forward to a productive new year for the coalition Government.