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Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, the noble Lord asks questions about international competition, dividend policy and indeed the time of the inquiry. It has to be said that the scope of any decision to change the competitive capacity of the Post Office has to be considered carefully. As was rightly said, it has taken a long time. At first it was difficult to reach agreement on how matters should be taken forward. That has now been achieved following an extensive consultative exercise. We shall shortly announce the terms of reference for the next review. I agree that international competition is growing. It is important that we meet that with the right kind of flexibility from our Post Office. As the noble Lord will know, the dividend policy will be decided as part of the next stage in deciding the right way to give commercial freedom to the Post Office.
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I do not think the purpose of the review is to decide whether it is privately or publicly owned, but rather whether the Post Office can act with greater commercial freedom to improve its service to customers and to compete in what is rapidly becoming a more international market. I do not think the status of the Post Office is in itself the key issue of the review.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a long running Treasury argument that changes to the PSBR would affect the exchange rate adversely? Now that many people, especially in industry, believe that the pound is too strong, does not that argument disappear out of the window, especially as regards the Post Office?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, as we know, the funding of the Post Office is part of the overall government programme. I point out to noble Lords that the capital expenditure of the Post Office is already running in the range of £300 million a year. The issue is how best to target that as regards international competitiveness. The Post Office pays an extremely good dividend to the Treasury and is meeting its targets.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the reason for the delay--this matter was a clear Labour Party manifesto commitment--is not that the Treasury wants to keep its hands on the significant dividend that comes from the Post Office?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, that sounds like surmise. The most important issue is to achieve the right shape and structure for the Post Office. I do not think there is anything in people's minds other than ensuring that very wide consultation--the widest ever undertaken in relation to this service--brings about a good commercial structure.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, am I correct in understanding from the noble Lord's second answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that the likely outcome of the first review will be the announcement of a further review? If so, how long are we to expect the process to continue?
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, as long as it takes to achieve the right answer. The point I made was that the first exercise was scoping. The second exercise will be a review of the appropriate structure to meet the scope that has been defined.
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Does my noble friend recall that at the end of a statement the bishops announced their intention of seeking to engage in a constructive dialogue on this subject with members of the Government? Will my noble friend be able to find
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, since the Government took office on 1st May, the noble Lord has submitted two Questions for Written Answer and three Oral Questions on the issue. We had a debate on 17th December. The noble Lord has two more Questions in the pipeline. I believe that I have been engaged in constructive debate with my noble friend on the issue on a number of occasions. I shall of course be delighted to see him in the course of the next week if he has something new to add to the debate.
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the report referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, the Catholic bishops said that international treaties oblige states to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons. Will the noble Baroness confirm that there is no international agreement which calls upon anyone to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons except in the context of general and complete disarmament?
Is the noble Baroness also aware that the statement of the bishops states that the International Court of Justice had supported that view? Will she confirm that in its advisory opinion in July 1996, the International Court of Justice said that,
If the noble Baroness engages in further constructive dialogue with anyone concerned in this matter, will she be prepared to advise that this casual and selective approach to the facts surrounding a most important international issue can be seriously misleading?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we should be in no doubt in your Lordships' House that Her Majesty's Government are for global elimination of nuclear weapons. We shall ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in multilateral negotiations when we are satisfied with verified progress towards that goal.
The noble Lord also refers to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. Her Majesty's Government welcome the court's recognition of the importance of the obligations under the non-proliferation treaty including nuclear weapon states' obligation on nuclear disarmament. The ICJ opinion does not require a change in the United Kingdom's entirely defensive deterrence policy. We would only ever consider the use of nuclear weapons in the extreme circumstance of self-defence which includes the defence of our NATO allies. The court was unable to conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that the European Union is unavoidably involved in the Algerian security situation since, in the event of a further breakdown of order in Algeria, a flood of refugees would seek to enter the European Union? Does the Minister still hold to the statement given by the Foreign Secretary to the European Parliament on 14th January that we have so far seen no evidence to support allegations of involvement in these matters by the Algerian security authorities?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are aware of those allegations. However, the noble Lord is quite right. As yet we have no definitive evidence of such involvement from the Algerian Government. Dialogue between the EU and Algeria will continue. During our presidency, the UK will repeat encouragement to openness and transparency. Indeed even today, Foreign Ministers are discussing the troika report and the way forward at the General Affairs Council in Brussels under the leadership of my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett.
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