Saturday, 15 November 2008

The mysterious case of the Post Office Card Account

It's not often that you are genuinely suprised in Parliament these days, but I think most people were astonished when the Government announced on Thursday that it was going to keep the Post Office Card Account (POCA) with the post office - or at least when they read it in that morning's Guardian. Rumours were rife that the account was going to go to commercial rival Paypoint, with the possible loss of thousands more sub post offices.

So what changed?

The minister said in his statement that the legal advice in 2006 was that they had to put the contract out to tender. But on Thursday he didn't announce that the Post Office had won the tender, he announced that he was scrapping the competition altogether! When I asked if this mean the original legal advice was wrong or that the law had changed, he simply said that when 'the facts' changed, he changed his mind - and implied that this was about the current financial crisis. My best guess is that the fact that the Irish Government survived a court challenge over not putting a similar process out to tender made the British Government think they could get away with it too. Though I bet Paypoint were given generous compensation for their wasted time and effort - and perhaps a sweetener to encourage them not to sue?

You might assume that as an MP I could find out this information - but every time we ask questions, including how much the whole abortive tender process cost the taxpayer, we are told it is a secret - 'commercially confidential'. Quite how the amount a Government department spends of public money on something that isn't going to happen can be a secret I don't quite know.

Some people see the shadow of Peter Mandelson in all of this. But as Malcolm Bruce said on Thursday, that assumes he has a shadow....

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