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Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 41:

("( ) All such claims shall be accompanied by identification documentation as follows--
(a) a Department of Social Security smart card,
(b) a current driving licence,
(c) a current United Kingdom passport, or
(d) a Department of Social Security payment book.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment concerns the payment of benefits. I have specifically made four suggestions. As the noble Baroness knows very well, I have raised the matter in this House on many occasions. As, indeed, are many others, I am somewhat concerned about the way in which we are to change our benefit payments. It will not be by compulsion. As the noble Baroness said to me earlier today, people will still be able to choose to receive their payments through the Post Office system if they so wish.

It may be that I am raising this matter in the wrong section. My noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will raise a similar issue with regard to benefit payments later in our discussions. However, I felt that we should have an opportunity to raise the matter at this point, and that is why I tabled the amendment.

I accept that the installation of ACT will bring, as the Government say, many benefits. However, at the moment some 2 million people are without bank accounts. For many, that decision has been made twice: first, probably because they are unbankable; and, secondly, because they choose to remain unbanked. It seems extraordinary to those of us who have bank accounts (it would seem strange to us not to have them) to imagine why people so choose; but choose they certainly do.

I tabled the amendment to try to find out from the Minister exactly how the Government expect people will identify themselves. At the moment they do so either through GIRO or through the payment book. If social security payment books are to cease, which I understand they are, one must still have some form of identification. There have been rumours that that may take the form of a smart card. If so, that is fine but at least we should like to know.

I have raised this issue on the post office Bill and in debates that we have had on other issues. We have been told that we are waiting for the PIU report which was due to be published after Easter. Easter has now gone. It then slipped from Easter to May and then from May to the summer. I am worried that it will slip from us completely and we shall not have the report before the Bill passes through both Houses. That would be a great mistake. I have some figures for March from the CAB which states that nine out of 10 income support claimants do not choose to be paid by ACT. I know that there are new claimants who the Minister will tell me prefer to be paid in that way.

There are two problems. The first is the question of individuals having reasonable access to the payments at a time that suits them. Secondly, some people do not wish to have bank accounts for various reasons.

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Some of the payments are absolutely essential. Where families have broken up, there is often a joint account. Couples do not always have individual bank accounts. In those circumstances, the caring parent, usually the woman, may find that the account has become overdrawn and therefore will not have access to those essential benefits in the way that she has now. Of course, at present she can go to the post office, as most claimants choose to do. Therefore, it is extremely important that we consider the matter today, although I know we shall debate it again later at greater length.

The other side of the coin is that at the moment the payments are made through the sub-post office system. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will be aware of the extreme pressure that there has been on sub-post offices and of the major rally which took place three weeks ago. The Committee will be aware of the 3,128,000 plus people who signed the petition to express their concern about the future of post offices. That is because 40 per cent of the income that goes to post offices is derived from the handling of welfare payments by sub-postmasters and mistresses.

The closure of banks, whether they be rural or urban, has exacerbated the problem. I noticed in the Telegraph today an article about the fact that the loss of banks adds millions of miles to village travel. So there are the additional factors of travel, pollution and cost.

If one is looking at the social side, one will know that the local post office does more than merely provide payments for claimants. It is the heart of the community, whether it is a rural or urban sub-post office. Along with, I suspect, many other people, I have been extremely concerned over the past three weeks about what is to happen. The Government changed their minds about the original plans which my party had put in place and have scrapped some of those. But there is a big question mark over the whole issue. Perhaps the Minister will provide further clarification on this issue rather than merely saying that we must wait for the PIU report.

I understand that if a social bank is established, it may have 2 million clients. Who will cover the costs of that? Recently we were told that the cost of transfer will be only 1p. But I am sure that it will cost more than 1p to provide banking facilities for 1 million people who have no assets. Are the Government expecting the existing banks to cover the cost of that or are they going to put money towards it to make sure that it is possible for it to happen? At present, there are too many questions left unanswered. If we do not put down one or two markers as the Bill goes through the House, in my humble opinion we shall be in the unenviable position of passing legislation without having real regard to the nub of the whole issue, which is payment to those whom the Government are trying to help.

When moving his amendment earlier today, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke clearly of the importance of people. We are talking about people and about payments and keeping them simple and accessible. At the moment all we have is theory and

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"possibles" which, with my amendment, I have tried to flush out. As I believe the noble Baroness accepts, this is a probing amendment. Perhaps she will clarify the position for us. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness and I have co-operated before on the issue of post offices. I look forward to doing so again. The matter is raised in Amendments Nos. 180 and 181, on which I shall have a good deal more to say, including mentioning some of the reasons why people on benefit are not satisfied with the services they receive from banks. I believe that we shall speak with one voice, as we have done before.

Amendment No. 41 concerns verification of those who wish to claim benefit. The Minister and I have had exchanges on this subject since 1998 and she can probably foresee what I am about to say. Here we have a clash of right and right. The desire to know that the people to whom benefits are paid are the right people is a good, proper and necessary one. At the same time, the need of those who have suffered a sudden emergency to be able to eat that evening is a real and pressing need. When the needs of verification conflict with the needs of real hunger, we need to think again.

Recently, I was in conversation with a CAB bureau manager who, I am sure, would prefer to remain unattributable. Without any questioning, he introduced the subject of verification as one that causes problems within the area of his bureau simply because the process of verification takes a considerable time. People cannot instantly lay their hands on the necessary documents; many people leave home; some may not have access to documents; sometimes the documents are destroyed in a burglary or a fire. While they wait for verification to be completed they have no benefit and no income; they run up debts; fall into arrears with their rent; face the risk of eviction; and probably end up going to loan sharks.

In that situation the problem of verification is not a simple one. Maybe we need a procedure for paying benefits to people on an interim basis pending verification. One would have to put a time limit on that. That need particularly applies to women who are victims of domestic violence who, of course, often have to leave home in a great hurry and do not have time to pick up bank cards, birth certificates and so on. It also applies to children who have been thrown out by their parents--noble Lords may remember the Children's Society report of last January--which is more common than one would believe. Usually, their documents are in the hands of their parents. They cannot appeal for them without revealing their whereabouts, which is something they do not always want to do.

If the Minister will consider the possibility of an interim payment of benefit on a short-term basis, pending the completion of verification, she may possibly be in a position to save a good deal of hardship. I do not know whether she believes that that manages to reconcile right with right. It is something

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that needs doing. On the spur of the moment I cannot think of a better way of doing it. On the issue of post offices, we shall return to fight again another day and we shall fight hard.

Lord Higgins: I rise to support my noble friend Lady Byford who has put forward what can best be described as a trailer for a future major event as regards discussions on the Post Office. My noble friend has put forward most forcefully the arguments in favour of having a form of identification. That being so, I think it is appropriate to consider the proposals that she has made in her amendment. In that context, I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say in reply.

Perhaps I may say briefly that the Minister and I have had a number of exchanges on this issue. It seems rather difficult to put over the point that concerns us; namely, that it is the method of payments through the post office which is so widely regarded by people throughout the country. We shall need to return to that matter in the light not only of the Minister's reply this evening, but also in the subsequent debate to which the noble Earl has rightly drawn attention.

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