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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I well remember the discussion with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the number of employees. She passionately defended the fact that it should be 50, but we settled on 20, which is the basis of this discussion. I am delighted that the noble Baroness agrees that every effort should be made to provide a framework to reduce acrimony in these difficult circumstances.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, for raising his point with me beforehand as it was not one on which I had focused in any great detail. There is a discrepancy between the procedures that can follow in a recognition and a derecognition situation. That is because where the derecognition is asked for by the workers, the position that the company may take is not clear. In that case, the matter could go both ways, whereas in the other circumstance, when the company asks for derecognition, or the company opposes recognition, the company's position is quite clear. In this specialised case it is not, and that is the reason for the difference on this issue.

I take my noble friend's point about the style and we will look at that in relation to a second edition. On that basis I commend the code of practice to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

9.7 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 62 [Loss of joint-claim jobseeker's allowance]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 176A:

("(3A) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide in relation to cases to which subsection (2) would otherwise apply that joint-claim jobseeker's allowance shall be payable in a couple's case, during the whole or a part of so much of the prescribed period as falls within paragraph (a) or (b) of that subsection, as if one or more of the following applied--
(a) the rate of the allowance were such reduced rate as may be prescribed;
(b) the allowance were payable only if there is compliance by each of the members of the couple with such obligations with respect to the provision of information as may be imposed by the regulations;
(c) the allowance were payable only if the circumstances are otherwise such as may be prescribed.").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 176A corrects a drafting error in the Bill. It provides for hardship payments to be made to couples who would

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have been entitled to a joint-claim jobseeker's allowance but for the application of a community sentence sanction to both members, or a community sentence sanction to one member and an employment-related sanction to the other. In those cases, we wish to ensure that JSA hardship payments can be made, as would be the case in the event of both members of the joint-claim couple being subject to employment sanctions. In cases where one member of the couple is subject to a community sentence sanction the Bill, as drafted, already allows for both reduced rate payments of JSA and hardship payments to be made; in other words, it is entirely benign.

It has always been our intention that joint-claim couples who are subject to community sentence sanctions should have the protection of hardship payments. But the Bill as drafted does not achieve our intention. This amendment puts into place powers similar to those in Section 20B of the Jobseekers Act, which enables hardship payments to be made to joint-claim couples in the event of both of them being subject to an employment sanction.

We intend to use these powers to make regulations that will enable hardship payments to be made to members of joint claim couples along similar lines to couples who are subject to employment sanctions. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 62, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 63 [Information provision]:

[Amendments Nos. 177 and 178 not moved.]

Clause 63 agreed to.

Clause 64 [Loss of benefit regulations]:

[Amendments Nos. 179 and 179A not moved.]

Clause 64 agreed to.

Clause 65 agreed to.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 180:

    After Clause 65, insert the following new clause--

("Payment of benefit
Manner of payment of benefit not restricted to automated credit transfer

. 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: On Amendment No. 180 I decided, after a little thought, that I ought to declare an interest. My local post office, Brondesbury Post Office in Kilburn High Road, was moderately severely damaged in a fire several months ago. The builder's yard which was the source of the fire is now more or less repaired and just about ready to open again. There is no sign even of any preparatory work on the repair of the post office.

A number of my neighbours are now speculating that the fire may have been used as an excuse to withdraw the services of that post office. Since those services were already under such pressure that on

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many occasions the queues out of the post office stretched across the road and blocked the pavement, it is doubtful whether the neighbouring sub-post offices, which are some way away, could take the strain. Since that causes me moderately strong feelings, I felt it was proper for me to declare an interest.

It also reminds us that, though we are primarily concerned with rural post offices, we should never forget that the same strains which are placed on rural post offices are often placed on post offices in unfavoured areas which also happen to be urban. Those problems deserve equal consideration.

The effect of Amendment No. 180--it is one moved by my honourable friends in another place--is to preserve the right to receive benefit at a post office rather than having to transfer to ACT. The present legal position, according to my honourable friend Mr Kirkwood, who was chairman of the Select Committee, rests on regulation 21 of the Social Security Claims and Payments Regulations 1987. That requires payment by ACT to be a consensual act; in other words, it cannot happen unless both parties agree. The purpose of the amendment would be to make it require primary legislation to reverse that. It would not make it irreversible; but it would mean that it could only be reversed by a measure which could be brought before Parliament on which we would have an opportunity to vote.

As my honourable friend Mr Kirkwood remarked, if the Government were to repeal that regulation without providing a new income stream for the Post Office, that would have the effect of killing the sub-post offices. There has been a good deal of speculation about what is the Government's intention. I think that it is likely that the Government's intention has changed somewhat behind a smoke screen. I should like to know a little more about that as we go along.

What worries us is that the Department of Social Security says that it has plans to save £400 million by the switch to ACT. As we understand it, that sort of saving would not be achieved unless the switch were very nearly total.

Not for the first time, I express misgivings about the effect of the Change programme--the 25 per cent reduction in administrative costs--on the working of the Department of Social Security. At the time, Mr Peter Lilley expressed the view that that change filled him with despair. I understand very well why Mr Lilley said that, and I think that this may perhaps be an example of the despair he then felt.

The importance of the Post Office in any small community is immense. Over the Easter Recess I had some opportunity to listen to voters. I found that the issue of the Post Office, along with the issue of rural buses, ranked on a level with pensions among those issues which caused concern among the electorate. This is something to which, in a democracy, we really must listen.

I am reminded of a story dating back to the golden age when Hugh Fraser was owner of Harrods. He was visiting a remote Scottish village and was taken to the village shop. The woman who ran the village shop

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asked him what he did and he said, "I've got a shop too". She started asking him questions about its size and the range of goods it stocked, and her face started to drop like a stone--until it suddenly lit up and she said, "Och, but ye'll no have the Post Office"! That is a real example of what the Post Office actually means in a small village.

For a great many people on benefit banks are not a particularly adequate alternative. The services of banks are not really designed for people who are on benefit. I remember one story which came to me from CAB sources, which puts this in a nutshell. A woman on income support had got used to running down her bank account to the last few pence at the end of each week. They miscalculated her account, calculated that she had gone into overdraft and imposed a £10 overdraft charge on her. She wrote and protested at this. They admitted the error, but then charged her £10 for writing her the letter in which they admitted that they were in error. She therefore went back into overdraft and, having no overdraft facility, was unable to buy any food.

That is why banks are not designed to be suited to people on benefit. Any community banking facility that may be laid on in any future arrangement for the benefit of people who want to have a bank account would have to take account of such needs.

I understand that the Government are now considering new schemes and new possibilities, but we do not yet know what those are. An amendment which has been tabled to the Postal Services Bill, on which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, may have more to say, states that the Secretary of State "may" provide a scheme which will provide alternative facilities. I reread that amendment about five minutes ago, probably for the 10th time. I cannot say that it is extremely clear to me exactly what the Secretary of State may do. He may do something in particular; he may do it very well or he may not. I remind the Minister of the debate we had a few moments ago about the importance of doing something while the Bill is in this House. When there is not a Bill before us, we do not have any purchasing power.

It may be that this scheme will be perfectly adequate. I hope so. The Minister deserves the benefit of a favourable interpretation on that. On the other hand, I am sure that she understands the importance of the principle of belt and braces, although I cannot follow the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and claim that this is something of which I have some professional knowledge!

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Not only the noble Earl, but most women do not have such professional knowledge either.

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