Automation can save shops, say sub-postmasters

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The Independent Online
SUB-POSTMASTERS will demand this week that ministers guarantee the future of small post offices by introducing 'benefit cards'.

The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters raised all-party protests in the House of Commons last week against government plans to encourage pensioners and others to have benefits paid directly into bank accounts. This would save administrative costs but would take work from small post offices. Benefit cards would have the advantage of ensuring that pensions, as well as child and other benefits, continue to be paid out by its members.

Tomorrow, the federation will call for a meeting with Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security and will press him to accept plans to automate the 19,000 sub-post offices.

Its favoured scheme is for pension and benefit books to be replaced by cards with a magnetic strip on the back which staff could 'swipe' through a machine connected to the Benefits Agency computers. The swipe cards are no different in principle from the Switch cards which dock the bank accounts of customers at supermarket check-out tills.

An alternative system would allow the mechanised authorisation of benefits by retaining the existing payment books but introducing scanning machines which could read the foils and check how much money should be paid out. Both methods have been in use in the Irish Republic for the past year.

'We hit the Government between the eyes in the Commons,' said Kevin Davis, the Federation's assistant secretary. 'We hope it will now take notice of us and invest to ensure the future of the post office network.'

The Post Office management is also lobbying heavily for the Government to invest in automation and has already tested swipe cards on customers buying electricity meter tokens in Wales and Northern Ireland.

A spokeswoman for Post Office Counter Services said that swipe cards would cut down on stolen giro and benefit book fraud - which Mr Lilley claims costs pounds 100m a year. They would also produce savings by reducing paperwork.

There are doubts, however, whether the DSS will want to meet the costs of introducing new technology, and postmasters and mistresses remain wary about the department's intentions.

Mr Lilley appeared to become the latest minister to retreat when he promised in an angry Commons debate on Wednesday that new pension forms this summer would emphasise that claimants could still collect their money from post offices rather than have it paid into their bank accounts.

Draft versions of the forms gave overwhelming encouragement to pensioners to use bank accounts and barely mentioned post offices.

Sub-postmasters had warned that thousands of rural offices could close if they lost the benefit work which accounts for about 40 per cent of their business. Their leaflets, which were handed out in virtually every sub-post office in the country, produced a deluge of complaints to MPs. Many shire Tories said they had not received such a large post bag on a single issue since the poll tax.

At Grantchester, near Cambridge, home to academics, retired businessmen and Jeffrey and Mary Archer, Geoffrey Tweed, the postmaster, was still handing out federation leaflets and his mainly elderly customers were still complaining.

'We're going to carry on protesting about this business,' said Percy Stallabrass, a villager, aged 82.

(Photograph omitted)