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Lord Monson: My Lords, it is difficult to form a view on the amendment because it does not appear on the Marshalled List. I am told that no Supplementary Marshalled Lists containing Amendments Nos. 4A, 17A and 20A are available either in the Prince's Chamber, the Peers' Lobby or the Printed Paper Office. If a few spare copies are to be had, I hope that they can be distributed and so solve this problem. I apologise for intervening on this point, but we appear to have run out of copies.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, while copies of the Supplementary Marshalled List are distributed to noble Lords who do not have them, perhaps I may take the opportunity to put forward the view from these Benches as regards the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon.

It was a great pity that the noble Baroness was unable to be in the House yesterday, obviously through no fault of her own. A lengthy discussion followed the Government's Statement and a number of comments were made. I speak on behalf of the party that campaigned consistently for the preservation of rural and urban sub-post offices during the closure

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programme that was initiated by the then Conservative government as a result of their decision to introduce automated credit transfer systems. However, from the tone of the speeches from the Conservative Benches, one would not think that this move had ever had anything to do with their administration. I find that somewhat ironic. However, in his remarks yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, was good enough to say that only one opposition party has campaigned consistently for the preservation of rural and urban post offices.

Having said that, we raised a number of questions on yesterday's Statement. I do not share the implication behind the Conservative amendment that we do not trust the Government on this matter. I take the view that the Government and the Minister have made a number of key commitments as regards the preservation of the sub-post office network. Indeed, the only missing element is a commitment to the money that will be needed to fund the subsidies. If the network is to be preserved in the way indicated by both the Minister and Mr Byers, that will require a very substantial contribution of funds from the Comprehensive Spending Review. I have taken it that both Mr Byers and the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, are confident that that commitment will be made.

A further concern, which I expressed yesterday on behalf of my colleagues, is that the tests that will be applicable in relation to maintaining, in particular, the rural sub-post office network, are slightly opaque. The first test--if no one is available to run the sub-post office then clearly the Government cannot be expected to subsidise that operation--is clear. However, in relation to the second test, detailed yesterday in the Statement--the commercial viability of ancillary retail services--I am worried that many rural sub-post offices will probably offer only very marginal services of that kind. If we are to preserve the rural sub-post office network, for all the reasons acknowledged by the Government when they accepted the PIU report, then it may well be that some rural sub-post offices will need to be subsidised during the six-year period, even if the ancillary retail side of their trade is not profitable.

Despite the fact that I object--"resent" is to put it a little too strongly--to the tone of the Conservative Opposition with regard to this matter, because I still have concerns over the second test, I can confirm that we on these Benches support the amendment.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Razzall about the genuineness of the Government's good intentions. We have been offered a gift-horse. But it is the duty of all opposition parties to look a gift-horse in the mouth. That is what we are for!

Lord Razzall: I think it is about being beware of Greeks!

Earl Russell: I think Greeks can wait for another day. I shall confine my remarks to the issue of those who are on social security benefits, that being the main area of my responsibility. We welcome warmly an

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assurance in the report that people on benefit will continue to be able to receive cash at post offices. That was the point of our argument last Tuesday. We welcome that assurance most emphatically. But a second part to that assurance is needed, and it is precisely what the amendment addresses; namely, the assurance can be made good only provided we are satisfied that there will be a post offices at which the benefit can be claimed.

For those on benefit, access cannot be measured merely in miles. It must be measured in means of transport. The Minister said that customers were voting with their feet in changing to ACT. I shall leave out the question as to whether that statement was just a little rhetorical. What I want to stress is that it does not apply to claimants of income support--who are doing anything but voting with their feet. They are sticking firmly with the Post Office. It is at least a plausible hypothesis that a large number are doing so because, if you are on income support, it is highly unusual to be able to afford to run a car. If you do, you are probably not able to eat, which tends to diminish your availability for work. So, for people on income support, the ability to go to a post office which they can reach, on foot if necessary, can be vital. That is also true of a number of pensioners. I think in particular of my next door neighbour who suffers from emphysema and serious heart disease. I sometimes see her setting out for the nearest sub-post office. It is a key moment of her day because it gets her out of the house, but you can see that it is a real struggle for her to walk. We do not want to make that struggle any worse. So the question is: what sort of network are we assured of in the report?

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, I noted the phrase "unavoidable closures" and I, too, pricked up my ears. I noted also the point made yesterday by my noble friend Lord Razzall that none of this is to come into effect until autumn 2001. So, given the present rate of closure, we wonder how much of a post office network will be there in autumn 2001 and whether the Government have any measures up their sleeve for interim preservation.

When examined in detail, the funding arrangements in the PIU report appear slightly Heath-Robinson. For example, we read that it is possible that local authorities might be induced to provide a top-up to government funding. Nothing is said about standard spending assessments. The report concludes, at page 89, that "further work is needed". I do not dissent from that.

The report also mentions supporting the rural network "in case" it should be necessary. At present, 60 per cent of rural post offices are losing money. "In case" it should prove to be necessary? Are not those words caution-conspicuous even by the standards of Her Majesty's Treasury?

I understand that provision has been made for sub-postmasters to continue to benefit from a piecework payment for benefit transactions. Is there any provision in the Government's arrangements for the payments to the sub-postmaster to be uprated

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annually in line with inflation? If there is not, that payment will wither on the vine. Sub-postmasters need to be secure in terms of a reasonable prospect for their future in order to be able to plan. Without that assurance, they will find it very difficult.

Finally, the report indicates, at page 91, that after many different bodies have been consulted, the Government will further assess the right level of public support. It sets out the time-consuming process. We assumed yesterday that we should hear about this in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Will the Minister confirm that that is definitely the case? Can he make any definite statement about the level of Post Office network that the Government will commit themselves to preserving? Without such a definite statement, we still do not know whether we have got what we wanted. I hope that we have.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I support the amendment standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Miller, and also the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Perhaps I should declare an interest. I am patron of VIRSA, which has done a large amount of work with the Post Office and also in relation to small village shops. I should like to raise one or two items which I hope the Minister will be able to confirm.

In the Statement yesterday, and in the report to which we have referred, there is mention of the money that will come in to the various sectors within the Post Office service. Perhaps I may go through them in reverse order. Money will be made available for rural sub-post offices, and, perhaps to a lesser extent and in a different way, money will be made available for post offices which are situated outside towns and, like rural post offices, suffer greater deprivation than those in towns. No comment is made on commercial centres, which are obviously commercially viable at present. Will the Minister clarify this point? Will the commercial centre continue to supply subsidies in the way it has done, or is this new money? Will the money come from the Government--about which we cannot yet be told--or do the Government expect the post offices to put money for the new system up-front--some £250 million, I believe--bearing in mind that the Post Office service has already had to call on some of its reserves over the past year and has made a loss for the first time in 24 years?

Perhaps I may also take up the point made by the noble Earl on a minimum level of Post Office network. Earlier this week, when we debated this issue in relation to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, the noble Baroness Lady Hollis again used the expression, "provided there are rural sub-post offices". Perhaps I may press the noble Lord further on that point. The noble Earl used the word "level", and I have written down the word "density". They relate to the same concern. What is the base-line, density, or level of network anticipated by the Government? What slightly worried me in the social security debate on the same matter was that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, went on to talk about the fact that our country

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is better served in terms of post office provision than some other countries. She said that, by comparison with France, Germany and the rest of the world, we had more post offices per population. That sounded slight warning bells and set me thinking: does that mean that the Government are going to settle for fewer post offices that we presently have? If so, I should be grateful for some clarity.

Perhaps I may take up a further point raised by the noble Earl on claimants choosing to have their benefit paid directly into the local post office rather than using an available banking facility. In the same debate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, referred to the fact that 50 per cent of new pensioners choose to use ACT. But, equally, that indicates that 50 per cent do not currently choose to use ACT. The figure of 54 per cent was quoted for those in receipt of child benefit who choose to use the new system--which, again, suggests that 46 per cent do not. The Government cannot have it all ways.

I am well aware that this is not Committee stage; therefore, it is difficult for us to come back on these points. I hope the Minister will clarify at least a couple of the issues that I have raised in addition to that mentioned by my noble friend.

From a personal point of view, I hope that the Minister can give us more clarity. My question to him yesterday following the Statement was very brief. The noble Lord answered readily when I asked whether it was government money, Post Office money or tax money. He said that he thought it was government money. I hope we may have a little more clarity in his response today.

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