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Lord Burlison: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 9.10 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.52 to 9.10 p.m.]

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 66 [Loss of benefit regulations]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 118:

("( ) a provision prescribing the manner in which the applicable amount is to be reduced for the purposes of section 63(3),
( ) a provision prescribing the manner in which an amount of joint-claim jobseekers allowance is to be reduced for the purposes of section 64(3)(a),
( ) a provision the making of which is authorised by section 63(4) or 64(4),").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 118 introduces measures to make the powers in Clause 63(3) and (4)--loss of benefit provisions--that specify the level of benefit reduction for income support and hardship payments for jobseeker's allowance subject to the affirmative resolution procedure as specified in Clause 66(4). This is in response to the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which I am happy to accept.

In addition, the amendment provides that regulations to be made under Clause 64(3)(a) and (3A)--reduced rate payments of JSA and hardship

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payments which may operate when the sanction applies to couples who claim JSA jointly--should also be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Although not covered by the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, these are to be included in the list of powers subject to the affirmative procedure to ensure consistency.

This is a measure concerned with conditions attached to benefits which we believe is right in principle. But, principled as we are, we have no wish to extend this policy widely without understanding its effects. That is why we are testing it first through pilots which will be thoroughly evaluated. We shall not extend the pilots nation-wide before considering carefully the findings of the evaluation and making them public. I urge your Lordships to accept this entirely beneficial government amendment which extends the affirmative resolution procedure to those parts of the clauses that deal with rates of reduction and hardship payments. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, wearing my hat as a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, I am happy to welcome the amendment. It appeared to us that the issues raised were important and that the regulations should be considered first by your Lordships' House before being implemented.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 119 not moved.]

Clause 67 [Appeals relating to loss of benefit]:

[Amendment No. 120 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 121:

    After Clause 67, insert the following new clause--

("Payment of benefit

. In section 5(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, at the end of paragraph (i) there is inserted ", but the regulations may not require automated credit transfer to be the only manner of paying a benefit.".").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, last March on the way back from my party's conference in Plymouth I stopped off at Chippenham to visit my mother-in-law and father-in-law, both of whom have recently cleared 90. My father-in-law came to the station to see me off and I chatted to him about the conference as we waited for the train. I told him about a motion that we had debated, to some profit, about the need to defend post offices. I noticed that a woman who was sitting next to us on the bench was particularly interested. She asked, as I wound down, whether my party was committed to fighting to defend rural post offices. I said that it was. She said, "In that case, your party has my firm and undying support. By the way, which is your party?" There we have the paradigm voter of the 21st century who has no brand loyalty and believes that the consumer is king. We also have a reason why there has been a good deal of emulation between the two Opposition parties about which of us is in front on this cause.

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However, in this Chamber we manage these matters rather better. I have had nothing but kindness, courtesy and co-operation from the Official Opposition. I should like particularly to thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford--who comes in promptly on cue and appears to be the unofficial postmaster general on the Opposition Benches!

At present, nothing but regulation prevents the Government from departing from the existing legal situation, according to which people in receipt of benefit have a choice whether they receive benefit through the post office or go over to ATC. We all know that it is painfully easy to alter regulations. Although we remember an occasion as recently as last February when a regulation was voted down in this House, it was on the understanding that it will not be a usual occurrence. We on these Benches believe that there is a need for greater security. We need to create a situation where the Government must change primary legislation if they want to cease payment of benefit through post offices.

That is the purpose of the amendment. It is fairly clear that there is official influence--I was going to say "pressure" but influence is perhaps a more just word--to encourage new benefit claimants to receive their benefits through ATC. I have the leaflet AC1 issued to new pensioners. An enormous headline states:

    "Have your pension paid straight to your account".

It is a little more than subliminal. The message that this is the preferred option is very clear indeed. The trouble is that benefits are a crucial part of the income not only of the post office but most particularly of the sub-postmaster. Without the network of sub-post offices as well as that of Crown post offices we would not have a Post Office service worth the name.

The matter is generally regarded as a rural issue, as very largely it is. In any normal village the post office is usually the shop, the meeting point and the social centre of the village. But it is also an urban problem. I must declare an interest. My post office, Brondesbury post office in NW6, was closed through fire quite a long time ago. There is no sign that the Post Office is doing anything towards reopening it. It makes me even more grateful for the Post Office services of this House. It has taken over from car parking as the second most valuable privilege of membership of this House. I must have a thought for those who do not enjoy that privilege.

Post office closures have been taking place for some time. They are accelerating. They have increased to as many as 500 in the current year. That is a considerable number of closures. I appreciate that the Government say--the Minister will doubtless repeat it--that they intend that everyone will retain the right to claim benefit at a post office. Yes, they do so if they can find a post office. But if closures are running at 500 a year, the right to go to a post office may be a little like the right which everyone has of having tea at the Ritz: it is fine if one can do so, but the fact that one has the right does not necessarily prove that one can exercise it.

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Something has to be done to shore up the post office network especially since the DSS's planned saving of £400 million will be achieved only if almost all benefit claimants do switch to ATC. Many are reluctant to do so. Not all claimants have great confidence in banks. Not all of them are in a position where they would be well advised to do so. Banks were once described by one of my American colleagues as impenetrable except to bank robbers. I recall the economic recovery conference in 1991 organised by the Independent. After we had debated bank charges for half an hour I asked for a show of hands by all those who understood the system of bank charges they were paying. There was a moment of horrified immobility; and then one solitary hand crept up. It belonged to Andrew Buxton of Barclays. A number of hands followed then but they were, I think, all his employees.

If one has a minimal income and is budgeting down to the last 10 pence each week, unpredictable bank charges are not what one wants.

I know that the Government are putting forward all kinds of possibilities about things they might do. We have an amendment to the Post Office Bill that I have in front of me. It provides that the Secretary of State "may" by order make the scheme for the making of payments. It provides that he "may" do something, but it does not state what he may do or how he may do it. Those are three very big questions to leave open. Since the key thing is that money must come into the system and that money must be from a guaranteed and recurring source, a provision saying that the Secretary of State "may" is not good enough.

I know that the Minister will also refer to the report of the PIU. I understand that publication is due later this week, but I have heard conflicting reports as to the day. It is not coming apparently in time for this debate. There is at least one report in today's newspapers which suggests that it might not be able to offer to guarantee more than half the Post Office network existing at present. If that were true it would be a disaster. I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers. The report may well be untrue, and if the Minister can tell us I will accept her assurance with great gratitude. If I see a report about something not yet available I quote it in the hope, very often, of hearing a refutation. I have seen one, and I look forward to hearing it.

It is unfortunate that that report was not due in time for this debate. That is no fault of ours. The date of the publication of the report and the date of this debate were both under government control; they are two bits of government that do not seem to have joined up. I do not see that either of the two opposition parties need take responsibility for that.

I can think of two possible explanations--either the Government do not believe that the report is likely to satisfy us or they have lost control of their own timetable. I shall leave them to tell us which is true. I beg to move.

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