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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We have heard two maxi-speeches and one mini-speech, none of which has been addressed directly to the amendment before the Committee. The amendment concerns verification, but the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has instead used it as a peg to put forward a trailer for a wider debate on the role of post offices. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has used it as a peg to raise issues concerned with the need for speedy access to funds where there is no obvious identification. Both of those are interesting issues, but not the ones identified on the Marshalled List.

Earl Russell: I believe that my remarks did address themselves to the matter of verification.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I agree that the whole debate concerns verification. Amendment No. 41 seeks to require those who claim certain benefits to produce specific evidence of their identity. We support the intention behind the amendment; namely, that barriers are put in the way of those who attempt to make claims under false names.

However, I would draw the attention of noble Lords to Section 1 of the Social Security Administration Act which already requires claimants to produce information or evidence to establish their identity. However, unlike this amendment, Section 1 does not specify which evidence the person must produce. They may produce evidence from a wide range of documents: birth certificates, passports, foreign identity cards or driving licences. Such documents are examined critically to ensure that they are genuine. For example, if it is thought to be necessary, birth certificates are checked against missing certificates and ultraviolet scanners are used to ensure that they are not fraudulent.

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The noble Baroness's amendment proposes that a list of acceptable documentation is placed in legislation. However, I suggest that there are difficulties with all of her suggestions. This may be better left to the looser arrangements--if I may put it that way--that the DSS currently has in place.

The noble Baroness first asks for the production of a smart card. There is no such card. The noble Baroness may be referring to the payment card which has now been withdrawn from use, so that would not work. Secondly, as regards a driving licence, it must be remembered that many people in this country--in particular women, those whose eyesight is impaired or those whose age prevents them from driving--do not hold a driving licence.

Thirdly, as regards the requirement to produce a UK passport, a number of people have chosen to live in this country but hold a passport issued by another country, or they may not be eligible to hold a UK passport. Finally, if a person is making a claim to benefit, they would not have in their possession a payment book. While many of the people concerned may have a child benefit book they could produce, again we cannot assume that all parents will have one in their possession.

For those reasons, we are reluctant to include a specific list. Instead, we interview claimants to establish their history and background. This information is checked against a range of other sources, including DSS records and those held by third parties. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the current powers provided by the Social Security Administration Act are sufficient to meet the purpose in this area. However, I should point out that Clause 3 does not deal with claims to benefit; it deals with applications for maintenance calculations.

Perhaps I may return to the wider issue that was raised. The noble Baroness was specific that she was using this as a peg to hold an early debate on post office payments. Her noble friend Lord Higgins has happily joined in the discussion, thus repeating an exchange we had during an Unstarred Question a little while ago. I am willing to follow this up through correspondence or in any other way acceptable to the noble Baroness. However, perhaps I may make one or two basic points.

The noble Baroness is right to say that the PIU report has slipped. We expect it to appear in late summer, rather than late May or early June as we originally thought. It will be between 2003 and 2005 before the ACT proposals are firmly and finally in place. Many of the details she asked about will be explored and discussed with Post Office Counters Ltd and sub-postmasters over the next few years.

There are many myths circulating. Every year, partly as a consequence of choice, or death, 500,000 people stop using post offices. Post office closures in urban and rural areas have been accelerating in recent years, well in advance of any proposals to change methods of payment. Given what is happening in finance and IT, if Post Office Counters does not enter the 21st century, it will find itself with a shrinking customer base. The question is how post offices will

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turn a potential threat into an opportunity, as major clearing banks close their outlets in rural areas, cutting the number of branches from 2,000 to 1,500 or fewer. The Post Office is in a position to exploit that opportunity.

The Post Office already acts as a proxy bank for LloydsTSB, Alliance & Leicester, Co-operative and Barclays and continues to negotiate with others. POCL is also developing--we hope to see this exploited in the PIU report--a universal bank, to make good the shortfall of individuals who are not currently in the system. Some 20 per cent of the population do not have access to banking services but rely on pawnbrokers, cheque changers, mail order catalogues offering goods at high interest rates and so on. Such people are excluded from the benefits of paying bills by direct debit and enjoying reductions. They have to go to friends to write cheques on their behalf. It is difficult for them to manage their lives that way. It will be to their advantage to enter the banking system. We have to ensure that the Post Office is in a position to help them. They should be able to draw their benefits and the sums of money that they want without additional cost, while ensuring security against fraud.

The more we explore the possibilities, the more I hope the noble Baroness will be persuaded that the threat, as perceived by sub-postmasters, is not just an opportunity but a lifeline. Without it, many sub-postmasters will be on the skids. Their lifeline will be offering financial services to the substantial number of people who are currently excluded from banking and who should enjoy the mainstream of financial services that the rest of us take for granted. I hope the noble Baroness accepts my assurance that we will be able to do something important, not just for rural communities and sub-postmasters but for those who are at the edges of financial society.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about delays caused to a battered wife, for example, in protecting against fraud. The obvious point of call is a Social Fund crisis loan which has been devised to provide bridging and emergency money until an individual's financial situation can be regularised.

Given, as I say, that the main input was to discuss post offices--the noble Earl perfectly properly asked questions about people who had no documentation--I hope that in the light of my explanation on that and on the detailed points raised by the noble Baroness, she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: I thank the noble Baroness for her full response. As I said in my opening remarks, this was a probing amendment, particularly in relation to identification.

I do not fully accept the Minister's explanation. I was not talking about a lifeline to post offices; I was discussing the importance of easy access for people who need to obtain their benefit payments. If there are no banks in the community, they need somewhere to collect them and at the moment the most common feature is the post office.

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Perhaps I might add that in the discussions I had with sub-postmasters I did not find them negative. They are looking to understand what the Government's intentions are so that they can plan and invest in the future. At the moment that is still not clearly defined. We have been told that the payments can be paid by X or Y; but until the scheme is set up there is bound to be uncertainty. Small individual businesses therefore hesitate to invest because they do not know for certain what is coming.

I should hate the noble Baroness to think that I am on the whingeing end on behalf of sub-postmasters. They would be equally dismayed if I reflected that, and I am certainly not speaking as a representative of sub-postmasters, though I go into many rural and urban post offices. If all were as well as the Minister suggests, why do so many people still prefer to collect their benefit locally in cash in the way that they have been able to do hitherto?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: In future, people will still be able to go to a post office to collect their benefit in cash. They will not have to dig into their pockets and pull out a paper order book. Instead, the Post Office will hold their account and instead of, as now, their having to withdraw the whole of the order for £67 in cash and walking home with the entire week's money in their pocket, they will be able to withdraw £20 or £40. So they will go to the local post office and withdraw their cash. But they will not hand over an order book which will be stamped and then take the cash and the order book back home. That is the essential difference.

I repeat that this should be seen as a real opportunity, both for the postmasters because of the other services they can offer with it and for people in our rural communities.


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