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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am very happy to try to deal with some of these points to which it is very important to provide answers. This is targeted investment to deal with a particular problem and is one of three schemes. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to the Government trying to shut the stable door after the horse had bolted. I remind the noble Baroness that under the previous Conservative government there were 3,500 closures and no attempt was made to bolt the door. On the contrary, we are trying to do something about it in a targeted way that invests money to achieve a purpose. It is important both to be prepared to invest resources but also not to assume that an unlimited amount of money is the way to solve the problem.

I also remind the noble Baroness that it is not until 2003 that ACT starts to become the method to be used. I also reassure the noble Baroness that there has never been any question about whether people will be able to obtain cash from the post office under this system; nor will they be required to pay any fees for that. I also remind the noble Baroness that the reason for the huge loss in the Post Office last year was the substantial write-off of all the expenditure on the benefits payment card. That was probably one of the most ill-conceived projects ever to take place in this field, and it is the ACT banking system which will replace it. This is one of three schemes. Although it is not a huge sum of money, it is directed at a very specific target and must be looked at with the other schemes.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. We have taken the figure of 10,000 because it is necessary to have a definition. That definition is used by the Countryside Agency and appears to make a good distinction between a rural and urban community. I also remind the noble Lord that later this year we shall bring forward a scheme for urban sub-postmasters which essentially does the same thing for them.

The noble Lord dealt with the whole question of retailing in local communities. The major issue here is not to do with supermarkets but the arrival of the car. Previously, people did all their shopping locally or made an occasional bus journey to the nearest town. All of the dynamics of that have been changed by the car. Cars, plus fewer people in many rural communities, have put pressure on sub-postmasters,

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because people can drive to shops in larger towns. The problem is that those without cars become vulnerable, which is why we are so concerned about this issue.

I can also reassure the noble Lord that places such as pubs and other commercial businesses as well as community halls will be included in this provision if they fulfil the criteria set out in the statutory instrument. We have deliberately given this matter a great deal of flexibility so that we can respond to particular circumstances, rather than trying to put everything into "one size fits all".

I turn to the other points raised. The trial is for six months. It is, however, a grant rather than a loan. Therefore, there is not a repayment period. It is a straightforward grant. It will be assessed by Post Office Counters Limited people. The reason is that they are already involved in the whole process of whether one can set up a commercial post office. It therefore seems right that it should be integrated into that process. That will mean that the people who really know the situation can make the decision and that the sub-postmaster or community group does not have to keep turning to different arms of government in order to get an answer on the decision. One cannot give an easy answer to the question about time because that would be integrated into this process of decision-making.

I am not certain what figure the noble Baroness was referring to when she talked about 66 million people. Clearly there cannot be 66 million accounts. If the figure was 16 million, that could be the people who receive benefits. Obviously, many people receiving benefits do not get them through the Post Office; they get them through their normal bank accounts. Whatever the number is, the new system will be able to deal with it.

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I hope that I have answered most points raised. The order ensures that postal services can be provided in some of the most isolated and rural communities where there is a real desire in the community to keep them. It will be of benefit to thousands of people living in hundreds of villages and small settlements up and down the UK.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, the noble Lord commented on how many post offices closed during the last Conservative Government. I do not have the figures with me, but, from memory, I believe that it was an average of 99 per year, whereas during the last Labour Government it was 351 per year and this year, alone, it was 541. I only say that because it is on an escalating basis. While we accept that this is just the first of three initiatives, as pointed out by the Minister, the other two initiatives do not come on stream until 2003, by which time there may not be any sub-post offices left.

The Minister need not comment on this matter now, but perhaps he could write to us. At paragraph 7(2) the order states:


    "A payment of subsidy under this Scheme which becomes repayable shall be recoverable as a debt".

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I can give the answer to that. In the case of fraud it can be recovered as a debt.

Perhaps I may say that the figure was 3,500 post offices, and, as under the present Government, there were wide variations between different years, with some years closures being as high as 475 and some years much lower. I simply wanted to make the point that in spite of all those closures no action was taken to do anything about it. I simply contrasted that with what we were doing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

        House adjourned at five minutes past nine o'clock.


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