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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I know that the Minister is too experienced to take it personally when I say to him that his response was totally unsatisfactory. He said that he did not want subsidies; that we should have more confidence in the Post Office; that it will prosper and will not need subsidies. But there should be no suggestion that his noble friend Lord Clarke, my noble friend Lady Byford or myself welcome the idea of subsidies; we do not. If the Government were not introducing ACT at this time, there would be no need whatever for these amendments. So none of us welcomes the idea of subsidies.

However, we said that if there was a power to introduce a subsidy, then that power should not be so full of holes that it has no value whatever. Why did the Government feel it necessary to introduce the new clause at Third Reading in the other place, which subsequently became Clause 102? Why was it not in the original Bill?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I rise simply to make the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said that no one on the other side of the Chamber was suggesting that ACT should not be brought in. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is saying that the

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Government should not have brought in ACT; that that is the cause of these difficulties. That is a fundamental mistake and there is no alternative.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I believe that the introduction of ACT at the critical time of the changeover of the Post Office to a plc with one shareholder and so forth, causes great difficulties for the sub-post offices. The sub-postmasters have made that known in their petitions, in their meetings, and in their lobbying briefs which Members of the Committee on all sides of the Chamber have received.

My question is: why did the Government feel it necessary to introduce this permissive clause at such a late stage? Why was it not part of the original Bill? I suggest that the reason the Government came up with this clause is that the sub-postmasters decided that ACT was extraordinarily dangerous for their businesses and that there needed to be a subsidy of some kind. The clause is a response to the petition in Westminster Hall and to all the lobbying that took place.

But does that response mean anything? Clearly not. The Minister began by saying that it was an enabling power. In fact, once the Bill is passed, I suggest that we shall hear no more about this clause. The Minister said that the Government had had no thoughts about a subsidy; that they did not intend to introduce one; and that the enabling power exists in case the need for a subsidy should ever arise. But once the Bill is passed, it is passed. The clause can sit there and never ever be used.

We feel that that situation is totally unacceptable. My noble friend Lady Byford spoke extremely well to her amendment. The general feeling is that we need some sort of clarification. The Minister was unable to identify "the person" in the clause. Is it one person, two persons, any person, that person or this person? I know not. The fact that the provision is so vague that the Government know not either, nor agree with us that the "person" should in fact be the Crown, leads me to the conclusion that this power will never be used.

Let us hope that the power is not necessary. However, if such a clause has to be included in the Bill, it should mean something. This clause means nothing. While the Minister spoke so well and we heard Members of the Committee on his side call out "Hear, hear!", I hope that he will not be upset when I say that his response was totally unsatisfactory. I could use other words to describe what I think. I felt that what he said was not worth saying. It meant nothing.

It may be that our amendments are not as perfect as they should be. That is possible. I cannot pretend that my amendments are always right. I hope they are, but it may be that they are not. However, it would have been helpful if the Minister had said that something could be done. We could then take his words away and think about them. But there is nothing to be done. This clause has been inserted into this Bill purely to placate the sub-postmasters and mistresses who fear that they will lose their businesses, otherwise it would have formed part of the original Bill.

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Our amendments sought to strengthen the provision in some way or other by saying that, if necessary,

    "The Secretary of State shall".

The Minister's response is that, if necessary,

    "The Secretary of State may".

We suggested that "the person" should not be a Chancellor of the Exchequer; we all know what they can do when they have the power.

My noble friend tried to find out how much the scheme will cost. All we know is the amount that sub-postmasters say they will lose. And we have no idea what sort of money will be available for the subsidies if they prove to be necessary.

We have sat for a long time and, with regret, I shall not divide the Committee on this amendment.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Miller of Hendon: Not because I do not want to, but I fear that at this stage I may lose and there is too much money at stake for sub-postmasters for me to jocularly say, "I shall test the opinion of the Committee". I feel that we may be doing enormous damage to those who have invested their lives in sub-post offices throughout the country. Rural areas have enough problems with lack of transport and all those other difficulties mentioned by my noble friend.

My concluding speech has been rather long. That may be why Members of the Committee opposite felt it necessary to laugh when I said that I did not intend to divide the Committee. But I want the message to go out loud and clear to sub-postmasters throughout the country that we tried and fought for them, as did some Members opposite. Unfortunately the Government turned us down. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 95 and 96 not moved.]

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 97:

    Page 61, line 31, at end insert—

("( ) A scheme under this section must provide for payments under the scheme to be made subject to conditions specified in or determined under the scheme enabling payments of any benefit to which section 5 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 applies to be made at a public post office to which the scheme applies—
(a) in cash;
(b) in a manner which ensures the identification of the recipient; and
(c) to a designated proxy of the recipient.").

The noble Baroness said: I thank the Minister for his comments. Like my noble friend Lady Miller, I find much of what he had to say merely a repetition of the arguments and not an answer to some of my specific points. I shall go away and read Hansard carefully. I hope that between now and the next stage we will obtain more information.

There is no difference between my noble friend and myself. At no stage did I indicate that we felt that the method of payment of benefit should continue as it

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was. What the Minister picked up on was the fact that I was trying clearly to identify the cost of the scheme. There has been no answer at all to that.

Perhaps I may make one or two further points. Like my noble friend, I was somewhat concerned—I am happy it is recorded—that Members of the Committee opposite found it funny that we pursued this matter to the depths that we have. I suggest that some of them, especially the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, have been valiant in trying to put forward the practical reasons for chasing this matter. There is no point in having a wonderful Post Office, which can do so many things, if the one thing it needs to do, but cannot, is enable people to draw their money from its many branches. I shall not repeat my arguments.

I hate to say it, but I accept that some post offices closed during our time in government. However, the increase in closures has been frightening this past year. Those noble Lords who jest about it need to look at the figures; I gather that there were about 500 this past year.

Those people who run sub-post offices do not do so for the good of their health; they are small individual businesspeople. The Government are supposed to be joined-up thinkers and are supposed to be for individual and small businesses. They are not helping small businesses. Indecision is really the reason for the amendment. My noble friend touched on that.

I went to the rally at the Central Methodist Hall, which was packed. Earlier that morning some of those attending had delivered what was considered to be the biggest petition (3,125,000 plus signatures) relating to the concern being expressed by people with regard to sub-post offices, those who run them and those who actually use them. That is no jesting matter. That is actually very serious.

I shall not press the noble Lord further. I had hoped that he would have given better answers to my questions. As I said earlier, I am not against moving forward and neither are the people who run the sub-post offices. However, they run small businesses; they need to plan for the future. They do not look to subsidy, but perhaps because of what the Government are doing they will need some form of subsidy. We return to where we started; that is, waiting for a report which has been in gestation for longer than I think noble Lords would wish. I should be glad of a response to my remarks before deciding what to do with my amendment, Amendment No. 97.

I believe that the Minister mentioned that the way in which payments might be organised, not necessarily be through the sub-post-offices, but might—

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