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Earl Russell: My Lords, for the convenience of the House I shall say that, should the amendment be accepted, I shall not move Amendment No. 90. Amendment No. 90 goes slightly further than this amendment, but were I able to take one pound of flesh I would not be greedy and ask for two.

The amendment is a matter of belt and braces. Although I cannot use the memorable line of the noble Lord, Lord Briggs, that that is something of which I have some professional knowledge, it is a matter of which I have at least some amateur knowledge. It was painfully clear this afternoon that the decline and collapse of the Post Office is proceeding a great deal faster than some of us expected. In the nature of administrative matters, especially when information technology is involved, it is possible that the growth of the universal bank may correspondingly happen a great deal slower than people expected.

This is not a matter of the Minister's good faith. We totally accept the Minister's good faith, but she is not omnipotent. The world might in some respects be better if she were, and I do not say that often. But she cannot control the working of every information technology contract and the working of the global economy. She can express a firm intention that the universal bank will be in place in time for the Bill, but she cannot be certain that it will happen.

There are some among us who foresaw the comments passed on the Post Office today. The gentleman I used to know as my noble friend Lord Thurso, to whom I must now get used to referring as my honourable friend Mr Thurso, put out a press release on 31st January, which stated that,


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On 24th May, he pointed out that 2,000 Scottish households were ceasing to receive regular delivery. What is Scotland's case today may be England's tomorrow. The situation may become urgent at any moment.

However much the Minister says that it will be all right on the night—the motto of the noble Lord, Lord Peston—she cannot be certain that it is true. It is no good her saying that it will not be done until it is appropriate. When Mr Lennox-Boyd was Secretary of State for the Colonies, he once said that Cyprus would not be given independence until the appropriate moment. Aneurin Bevan pressed him hard as to what was the appropriate moment, and received the answer: "The appropriate moment is the appropriate moment".

Try as she would, I do not believe the Minister could say any more than that. This is a matter of people's lifelines. Plenty of people are already spending 10 per cent of their benefit on fares simply to collect it. There may soon be people with no opportunity at all to collect their benefit. I am not entering now into the argument about whether people should be disentitled to benefit, but they should not lose their benefit by accident. Do not die of ignorance; do not lose your benefit by accident. If the amendment is not carried, some people will.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, once again I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Byford for her dogged persistence and sincerity in pursuing this issue. As she and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have told us, today's Statement on Consignia has added to rather than dissipated nervousness. Of course the Minister will give her customary reassurances on that matter. That is all good and well. But it begs the question posed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in Grand Committee, as to why those reassurances cannot be written in the Bill. Their currency and quality are such that surely there is nothing to be lost and potentially much to be gained in doing so. In terms, that is what our amendment seeks to do.

A theme of our debates has been the desire for all sides of the House to persuade the Government to acknowledge that the Inland Revenue, in taking over a benefit function has, as my noble friend Lady Byford said, a duty of care to those entitled to claim tax credits. Part and parcel of that duty of care is to deliver payment of tax credit claims via mechanisms appropriate—I hesitate to use the word for fear of incurring the wrath of my noble friend's erstwhile English teacher—to the needs and circumstances of individual claimants. Contrary to the Minister's suggestion in Grand Committee, this is not about dictating where post offices should be located, but about ensuring that the system offers the right levels of choice to its customers.

Without wishing to labour the point, I repeat that this is wholly consistent with the Performance and Innovation Unit's report, Reforming our public

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services: Principles into practice. That document, wholeheartedly endorsed by the Prime Minister, states on page 8:


    "Public services . . . have to be refocused round the needs of the patients, the pupils, the passengers and the general public rather than the problems of those who provide the services".

And on page 11 it states:


    "The starting point must be that the public has a right to good quality education, to healthcare, to law and order, to local authority services,"—

and, the key point—


    "to income support, and that it is the duty of the Government to secure these rights on their behalf".

The logical inference is that, as a necessary requirement of their duty of care to their tax credit customers, the Inland Revenue has a duty to secure the rights of individual claimants in ways that ensure that the level of service is focused on their needs. In other words, the amendment is wholly consistent with the policy initiative outlined by the Performance and Innovation Unit and endorsed so fulsomely by the Prime Minister. In such circumstances, I cannot resist suggesting that it would be somewhat strange were the Government to resist the amendment. For our part, we on these Benches support it wholeheartedly.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that this is not a debate about the location of post offices. The noble Baroness spent part of her speech on that issue but we are not dealing with it today.

The amendment seeks to ensure that payment facilities at post offices, wherever they may be located, are adequate and appropriate for clients. Ultimately, post offices survive because they are used. A statistic I have given the noble Baroness previously indicates that half the Post Offices which were closed last year were used, on average, by fewer than 70 people per week. One cannot expect any government department artificially to keep alive a post office for which there appears to be no local demand.

I am second to none in my respect for the noble Baroness in continuing to draw the matter to our attention. However, as the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, said, we are not debating that matter. We are debating the facilities at those post offices.

Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister tell us why 70 people starving because they cannot obtain benefits is less serious than 70 people dying in a train crash?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, no one has said anything about 70 people starving because they cannot obtain benefits. I said that in half of the post offices which were closed last year on average fewer than 70 people used them each week. Perhaps those people could have gone elsewhere and chose not to.

Given the cost of subsidy of rural post offices, the noble Earl will know that it would cost almost as much to send a car to take each individual user of the post office to the nearest town. Ultimately, post offices survive because they meet a demand and a need. If they

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are not being used and supported by local communities, it is hard to expect government subsidies to keep them afloat at considerable cost.

I had hoped that today we could stay with the substance of the amendment—that is, the payment methods—and we seek to reassure your Lordships that with ACT we are widening the methods of payment. I hope that I shall be able further to reassure your Lordships that as a result of our policies and the commitments already given by the Prime Minister and the Government, claimants will be able to receive direct payments in cash by some means other than ACT if there is a delay before the proposed Post Office card account becomes available to clients who are unable to obtain a normal or new basic bank account with a high street bank.

Amendment No. 88 suggests that until suitable alternative payment mechanisms are available to all claimants the regulations should not prevent payment by some method of credit document cashable at the post office. I do not disagree with that. My question to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is: why do we need to place such a provision on the face of the Bill? It does nothing more than prevent us from ruling out forms of payment cashable at the post office until such time as other payment facilities are available to claimants. I agree with that, so the issue between us is how to give that assurance.

I ask the noble Baroness why she believes that the published draft regulations which she will have and which cover the matter precisely do not meet her concerns. I give way to the noble Baroness. Will she please tell me why the draft regulations do not meet her concerns? As I read them, they do precisely that and the only difference between us is whether the provisions should be contained in regulations or appear on the face of the Bill.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have tried not to make today's debate a post offices issue but to highlight the difficult issue of where those people will go. The Minister said that half the people—


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