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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that the figure will be about £400 million. I cannot give the exact calculation but it will be about that. If anything, it will be slightly more in terms of both corporation tax and dividend. But I can see no reason why the Post Office, like all of us, should not have to suffer corporation tax and pay a dividend.
The chairman and non-executive directors will continue to be appointed by the Government--in the case of non-executive directors, after careful consultation with the chairman. On the noble Lord's final point, the White Paper will set out the exact framework, but I imagine that the situation will continue where it is not in the business of just total electronic transmission.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, the great difference between a private sector board and a public sector board is that, in the former, to the great benefit of the efficiency of the business, the shareholders then trust the running of it to the board. Over the past 50 years, that has not been so of public sector boards--to their detriment. I therefore very much welcome the Minister's determination to make radical changes. I seek three specific assurances that these will be radical.
Referring to the Statement, the noble Lord bases the Government's relationship on approving a five-year rolling strategic plan. I ask the Minister to assure us that this will not be a meaningless mass of numbers but a strategic plan and that controls will be at the strategic level.
Secondly, where the Minister refers to separate fast-track arrangements for considering the largest strategic investments, will he clarify what is meant by "fast-track"? The quickest I ever had as chairman of the Post Office was one year.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has asked those questions. When I was a member of the Carter Committee, which reviewed the Post Office in the late 1970s, he was deputy secretary on nationalised industry matters at the Department of Industry. He then went on to an extremely successful career as chairman of the Post Office. Therefore, we have been discussing the issues of the Post Office for around 20 years. I have greatly enjoyed the noble Lord's comments and I am greatly pleased that, in broad outline, he approves of what we are doing.
The noble Lord asked three questions. Perhaps I may assure the House that we are very serious about the issue of giving commercial freedom to the management of the Post Office. We see that as absolutely essential if the Post Office is to develop in the way we want to see it develop. Therefore, the strategic plan will concentrate on strategic issues and not be, as so often has been the case in the past, simply a mass of details to be picked over by the Government.
I cannot at this point say what "fast-track" will consist of, but it will certainly be better than it has been in the past. As issues will have been raised in the strategic planning, it should be much easier to take quick decisions on them.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may follow up the point about the Post Office's social responsibilities. Many of our rural post offices are currently under great stress. Some are miles away from anywhere. I wish to raise three concerns. My first follows up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, about car tax and benefit payments. Will there be restrictions on other organisations using the Post Office. I give an example. Some post offices are allowed to sell lottery tickets for Camelot. I understand that targets are set for such post offices. This has proved a huge problem for some post offices in rural areas as they are not achieving their targets. I understand that it is possible that their right to sell lottery tickets will be withdrawn. In considering these changes, will greater freedom be given to post offices in rural areas so that they can adapt to what suits best their particular area, or do the Government have in mind a set standard for the whole of the UK? Rural needs may be very different from urban needs because of the smaller number of people in rural areas. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.
Secondly, are there proposals for setting targets? Will there be an urban target and a more rural target? Thirdly, in the Statement, the Minister kindly explained the Government's acceptance of their social responsibility.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we are all conscious of the need of rural communities for sub-post offices. The Government are fully committed to the maintenance of a nationwide network of post offices. However, as I hope I made clear, neither the Government nor the Post Office can guarantee that no post office will ever close, as the majority are in fact privately owned, but we recognise that they perform an important social function and, as I hope I made clear, we will do everything we can to support them.
I very much hope that the new commercial freedoms will enable post offices to develop more services which will improve their financial viability. The relationship between post offices and Camelot is a commercial one. I believe that always involves targets with regard to the best outlets in which to sell lottery tickets. The financial target will obviously take account of the economics of offering services in urban and rural areas.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, I declare an interest. As I said in my maiden speech last week, I spent 51 years of my working life totally associated with the Post Office. Last week I asked for a speedy response to the review from the Government. I had no idea that it would be this quick! I join those who welcome the fact that a decision has been made. I await the publication of the White Paper before giving the measure a wholehearted welcome as one or two pieces of this jigsaw are still missing. The Statement does not specify the more central role and the increased powers that will be enjoyed by the Post Office Users National Council. Will that in some way conflict with the new regulatory regime that is envisaged in the Statement? It seems as if, yet again, there will be another layer of bureaucracy for the Post Office to fight as it tries to do its business.
The Statement refers to the Crown office conversion programme, which is mostly known in the industry as the Crown office closure programme. Can the Minister assure us that careful consideration will be given to this matter before more of our valuable High Street post offices are transferred to supermarkets which are accessible to people with cars but not to those who do not have cars? Will these considerations be taken into account? I, of course, welcome the change in the external financing limit and the increased amount of profits that post offices will be able to retain for their own investment. As I say, I await with interest the White Paper but I would appreciate hearing the Minister's comments on the points I have raised.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am delighted that we were able to respond so quickly to the point the noble Lord made last week. It is absolutely typical of this Government to respond so quickly to
Lord Monson: My Lords, I hope I may strike a more mundane note. Does the Minister agree that what the general public want is for their letters to be delivered in good time and to the right address? Unfortunately, recently more and more correctly addressed and, what is more, first class letters, take several days to reach their destination. Usually it is quicker to post a letter from Glasgow to London than from one side of London to the other. In my experience, at any rate, more and more correctly addressed letters are delivered to the wrong address--in my case about 4 per cent. of them, although, happily, they are delivered to addresses within a radius of about 500 yards from my own, and therefore they usually reach me eventually. However, that can occur several days later if the relevant people are away. Is anything being done to rectify this regrettable lapse in standards?
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