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Earl Russell: Usually having the first amendment after dinner is by way of being a penance; but tonight, for the benefit of those who perhaps had to hurry their dinner, we provided the Committee with a sandwich. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and I, supplied the bread; the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, supplied the meat--and very good meat it was too and I shall read it with a great deal of care; the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, supplied the butter; the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Pitkeathley, supplied the mustard; and the right reverend Prelate supplied the salt.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: Highly seasoned!

Earl Russell: I can assure him that it has in no wise lost its savour; and the Minister provided the fire at which we have been very gently toasted.

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Let us react for a little while to the toasting. I understand and hear what the Minister says; that is, that people will remain able to collect their cash at post offices. But that assurance can be valid only in so far as they can find any post offices. That is the central weakness in the Minister's position. It is a further weakness in her position that, while she is responsible for the delivery of benefit, she is not responsible for the survival of the post office network. Here we have something where the acid of the change programme has perhaps corroded the joining up of government, such joining up as previously existed.

I am not certain that the Minister recognises it as a responsibility in these proposals to ensure the survival of the post office network. She talked of post office customers voting with their feet. I do not believe she realises quite how persuasive a canvasser the Treasury can be when it gives its mind to it. Every year the Treasury renegotiates with the Post Office a contract for the delivery of benefit. Every year there is a downward pressure on that contract--of course there always is with anything that the Treasury negotiates.

That has had the effect--certainly in post offices in my part of London and I believe in many others--of increasing the waiting time at post offices, to the point where the pressure to consider another system has become rather intense. So the voting with the feet may have happened to feet which have been quite heavily guided. Once again I remind Ministers that they should not assume that "efficiency" is actually efficient.

The Minister asked post offices to stop treating this Bill as a threat. It is of course difficult because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, pointed out, they are small businesses and must plan their future. If small businesses are to stop treating this as a threat, they need something in this Bill which will enable them to be sure that they have a secure future for which they can plan; otherwise the uncertainty will drive them out of business. It is a bit like an argument as to whether to repair the library, or whether there is no need to repair it because we are going to build a new library shortly. That may be true. But it is no good if, in the mean time, the rain comes in and destroys all the books. So if the post office network crumbles before the Government have come up with an adequate replacement, there is not going to be any easy recovery. That is why some reassurance is necessary now, at this moment, before any more closures take place. These closures have reached the point where they are creating a situation of real danger.

I do not know whether the Minister has seen a report in the Independent today, based on a press release from my honourable friend Mr Webb. He has discovered that the Minister's colleague Mr Rooker has sent out a letter to sub-postmasters, objecting strongly to them trying to persuade people to get their benefits through the post office rather than transferring to ACT. I cannot feel that my honourable friend was in any way wrong to use the word "threat" in relation to that letter. This sort of thing does rather encourage post

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offices to feel that they are under threat. If the Minister wants to persuade them that they are not, she will have some quite hard work to do.

I must thank her very warmly indeed for the offer of the meeting with Mr Johnson. That is a truly welcome offer, subject to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the date. The absence of all those involved in the Post Office Services Bill would clearly very much weaken anything we were able to do; but I am sure that it will prove possible even in the busy timetable of Ministers to find another.

It is possible that we shall be reassured about the Government's long-term intention. Government long-term intentions, however, do change in the light of events, usually economic circumstances. There is still a case to be considered about the need for a long-stop to be put into this Bill. Even if I were absolutely perfectly reassured, therefore, while I would be putting a case in very different terms, I might not necessarily cease from putting a case.

The Minister made a great argument about the cost of £1.36 per taxpayer. That is not only a cost of delivering benefit; it is also a cost of delivering a post office facility, which is the real heart of communication in many communities. I wonder whether, when one takes that into account, it might be cheap at the price? This is where it is important that preserving the Post Office is not her departmental responsibility. One wonders whether it carries the weight in the equation which perhaps it should.

I am also very struck by the contrast between the Minister's answer this time and her answer to the previous amendment. In the latter answer she was putting forward--I do not believe that she will think this an unfair description--a very strong communitarian morality, in which some people see an authoritarian tinge. On this amendment she was putting forward a case about post offices which involves the risk of dissolving the cement which holds together a spontaneous, natural community.

Those two arguments make rather uncomfortable bedfellows. Yet the mere fact that they are uncomfortable bedfellows creates a certain rather uncomfortable logic in putting them together. If you destroy the spontaneous sense of community, you may well be under temptation to create it artificially by Government authority. It really does not work. If it is not there spontaneously, Government cannot make it.

However, that is not a problem which I would for one moment suggest addressing in the Division Lobbies at this time of night. For the time being, therefore, and subject to discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about the text of a future amendment, I beg leave to withdraw this one.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 181 not moved.]

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10.30 p.m.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 182:

    After Clause 65, insert the following new clause--


(" . At the end of section 70 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (invalid care allowance), there shall be inserted--
"(11) The Secretary of State shall make regulations in respect of persons who cease to be in receipt of invalid care allowance as a result of the death of the person in respect of whose care the allowance has been claimed.
(12) Regulations under subsection (11) shall set the condition for the award to be satisfied for a period of eight weeks from the date on which that person ceased to be in receipt of invalid care allowance.".").

The noble Lord said: This amendment deals with the situation of somebody who is in receipt of invalid care allowance, where the person who is receiving the care dies and the invalid care allowance therefore stops.

The level of care required in order to qualify for invalid care allowance is very substantial and there are therefore likely to be very considerable physical demands on the carer. What is more, the person who is being cared for is likely to be closely related to the person providing the care. The person being cared for may be a parent, a child, a spouse or a partner of the person providing the care. Therefore, in addition to the physical demands of caring, there is likely to be a considerable emotional drain on the person providing the care, who, almost inevitably, will be distressed by the fact that he or she is having to provide the care.

As a result of this situation, the blow to the carer when the person being cared for dies is likely to be very severe. Indeed, this will be a great emotional loss in most cases. The person providing the care is likely to feel that he or she has, in a sense, lost all purpose in life when the person being cared for--who has, in effect, been the centre of his or her life--dies. In those circumstances, surely what the carer needs is a break--a holiday if one can be found--or, at the very least, the chance to do a little thinking about the future, which will be very different from the past.

Carers do not want--nor should they be asked--to rush immediately from the deathbed into the process of looking for a job or claiming means-tested benefits. Therefore, surely carers ought to be entitled to a kind of respite break; that is to say, a few weeks' rest. We propose eight weeks in the amendment, which in the circumstances is hardly substantial. We believe that these carers should be entitled to a few weeks' break in which to pull themselves together, think about the future and recover from the immediate aftermath of their loss, without having to go to the jobcentre or to the benefit office to claim benefit. During that time, they will be able to bring themselves to think about what the future holds for them. Surely the eight weeks that we suggest is a minimum that ought to be provided for former carers. We believe that this is a necessary requirement if we are to regard ourselves as

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a properly compassionate community towards those who will find themselves in a very difficult and painful situation. I beg to move.

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