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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chris Pond in deep water

Over the course of two years or so a large number of opposition politicians have sought to highlight the Labour Government's disastrous Post Office closure policy and the impact it is having on pensioners in particular. We have pointed specifically at the way that the Post Office card account has been introduced. This card enables pensioners to continue collecting their pension at the Post Office and helps to keep a level of business that may prevent a branch from closing.

The problem is that whenever people phoned up to apply for one of these cards the Department of Work and Pensions did everything they could to make it difficult for them and to persuade them to use another method to collect their money instead. This was a consistent complaint and is not the impression of one or two individuals. As a result the Social Justice and Regeneration Committee in the Assembly asked their Minister to take this issue up with the DWP. She reported this morning on the response:

"I have received a number of concerns from Assembly Members and constituents about the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions has managed the introduction of the direct payments system for pensions and benefits. Particular comment was made about the information customers are receiving in order for them to make an informed choice. I subsequently made representations to Central Government and have now received a response from Chris Pond, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions. I thought Committee members would like to be aware of his comments, which contain advice which you might wish to refer to in the event of your receiving complaints from constituents.

Mr Pond was sorry to read that constituents feel intimidated by the information they are receiving about Direct Payment. He said that the Department carries out regular evaluation of calls made by or received in the Customer Conversion Centre (CCC) and assured me that there was no element of coercion in the way customers are spoken to.

However, he recognised that lessons learned over the period of conversion to direct payments have shown that it is important to take customers through Informed Choice discussion to ensure that they have all the information they need to make a decision about which account best meets their needs. For instance, he said, if a customer calls the CCC requesting a Post Office card account, they are asked what it is about getting their money at the Post Office that is important to them. Customers are then asked if they are aware of the other methods of getting their money at the Post Office, such as certain current accounts and many basic bank accounts. He said, a surprising number of customers requesting the card account are not aware of these options and some already have an account that they could be using at the Post Office. They are pleased to have this pointed out to them as it saves them the effort of having to open another account with another card to keep and PIN to remember. He also commented that the transactions generated by use of these other accounts being accessed at the Post Office also help to support the Post Office network."

Essentially, Mr. Pond denied that there was any intimidation, apologised if people felt that there had been and then justified precisely the sort of intimidation that had been complained of. So much for a caring, listening government.

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