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Lord Skelmersdale: Can the Minister give us a commitment that references to the Minister for the Civil Service in the Bill will be looked at to ensure that the Bill is drafted as the Government intend?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I shall certainly do that. It was unfortunate that we did not get it right first time. We are now correcting the matter and I shall make certain that any other references are correct.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 2:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 3 [Duty of the Commission to ensure provision of a universal postal service]:

Lord Laird moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 2, line 20, at end insert--

("( ) Where the Commission has imposed such a condition, it must include a condition that the designs and illustrations on adhesive postage stamps proving the payment of the public tariff (as mentioned in section 4(1)(b)) reflect the entire United Kingdom as well as its history and culture.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 3 standing in my name. In any revamping of the postal services we should ensure that items that are collected and in which people have an interest--namely stamps--should advertise the virtues of our country. They should reflect all sections of the United Kingdom, its culture and its history. It is extremely important that, whenever the commission licenses bodies that are likely to undertake those tasks, it ensures that the tasks are undertaken in a way that reminds everyone that it is the postal service of the United Kingdom.

Recently I was distressed--perhaps this is why I have tabled this amendment--to discover that the current postal service has decided not to celebrate the bicentenary of the creation of the United Kingdom in 2001, but instead it has decided to celebrate pond life. I am not against pond life--some of my best friends

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actually like pond life--but that will not capture the ethos of the United Kingdom in the year when we should be celebrating the bicentenary of the creation of the United Kingdom. I want to ensure that, in future, we do not become the laughing stock of postal services around the world, as we have over the issue of pond life.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I have enjoyed listening to the noble Lord, Lord Laird. Like him, I hope that everything celebrates the United Kingdom. I feel strongly that we should always celebrate the United Kingdom. However, I have some concerns about this amendment because I fear that it may be too prescriptive and practically impossible to implement.

As far as the design of stamps is concerned, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own designs of definitive stamps. The noble Lord may be talking about sets of commemorative stamps that are produced from time to time showing pictures of birds or artists and so on. I believe that it may prove difficult to insist that such commemorative stamps, which may be only four in number, contain such matters. I totally agree about the United Kingdom, but I am concerned about how this measure would be implemented.

Lord Swinfen: No matter from what part of the United Kingdom stamps originate, they all have on them the sovereign's head. That is a unifying factor. There have been rumours--maybe no more than suggestions--that the European Commission wants to produce a European stamp that would be used throughout the EC and may not allow individual nations to use their own stamps. Therefore, I believe that this amendment, or something like it, should be accepted.

Lord Patten: On this amendment, I speak in support of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. He has raised an extremely important point. This is the upper of the two Houses in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It seems extraordinary, according to answers elicited from Her Majesty's Government by the noble Lord--I follow his lead in this matter--that at present the Government have no intention of celebrating the anniversary of the creation of the United Kingdom in 2001. I cannot imagine another country in the world that would not celebrate such an event. The noble Lord has put his finger on the fact that the Post Office appears to have other priorities. I am the owner of a decent and deep pond in Somerset. I shall conduct a focus group among its inhabitants to see whether they would prefer to have their stamp, or whether they would consider that the history of the United Kingdom is more important.

Perhaps interest groups around the country could be consulted. I pick, entirely at random, the Women's Institute. As the Committee knows, I am not a boastful man, but it may be useful to put on the record that, like my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, when I have spoken to that institute I have received a warm reception. I believe that it would consider it extraordinary that Her Majesty's Government do not wish to promote next year's anniversary.

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We do not want the Minister to find himself in difficulties, so if the amendment is imperfectly worded, perhaps he can give the Committee an undertaking to return to the matter on Report. I believe that characteristically the noble Lord has put his finger on the point. I am right behind him.

Lord Skelmersdale: I believe that a nugget can be found here, but I see a slight problem. The noble Lord will be familiar with the hand of Ulster on stamps issued in the Province. No doubt he will also be aware of the reproduction of the Welsh leek and the Scottish thistle on stamps. I cannot see how one can get around the problem without doing away with those symbols.

None the less, I believe that it is absolutely right that the Post Office should consider a special issue to celebrate the bicentenary of the United Kingdom. I hope that it will be one of the first subjects to be debated by the new commission. Incidentally, I have not yet been told when the first meeting of that body is due to take place.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I know that the subject of stamps arouses keen interest among many people. However, their design and illustration is not a matter for primary legislation and the proposed amendment would be unnecessarily restrictive. Furthermore, it would be unworkable. I suspect that it would be difficult to reach a consensus on what reflects the entire United Kingdom.

The Government are content for the Post Office company to choose the themes for its annual stamp programme, as it does at present. What is depicted on stamps is entirely a matter for the company to decide, in consultation with the Stamps Advisory Committee. I should point out that the Post Office undertakes a great deal of research on what people would like to see represented on stamps. For myself, I believe that that is probably a better way of discovering what people want rather than turning it into a political issue, which certain groups might seek to exploit.

The position taken by the Government as regards the Post Office is entirely in line with the established practice followed by successive governments since the establishment of the Post Office in 1969.

I am not aware of any proposals for uniform European stamps. Postage stamps are particular to postal operators and there are no plans to merge all the different EU postal groups. While I understand the interest of the noble Lord in these matters, I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Laird: I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks and I take on board many of the points that he makes. However, we wish to see postal services in place that reflect accurately the country they serve. That is not unreasonable. I understand the point made by the Minister on market research, but I believe that no market research projects have been undertaken or focus groups set up--including those for children--recently in Northern Ireland. That is a shame when one considers that Northern Ireland is a part of the

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United Kingdom with its own stamp regime, a point made earlier by several noble Lords. Perhaps the Minister can write to me on the matter.

What we would like to see is a form of design that reflects the entire United Kingdom across the complete range of stamp values. It is a pity that we do not occasionally highlight points that are good about the United Kingdom as a whole. Indeed, sometimes stamps are produced that make me wonder why the sovereign's head is not depicted in red; she must be very embarrassed to have her head put on such stamps. We should select themes and issues that reflect the whole nation in all its diversity and we should emphasise its collective worth and strengths. Whatever postal authority is in place in the future, it should ensure that it looks after the nation as a whole.

I shall reserve the right to hold further consultations on this issue and I may refer to it again in the future. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

4.15 p.m.

Clause 4 [Provision of a universal postal service: meaning]:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 4:

    Page 2, line 25, leave out ("one delivery of relevant postal packets is") and insert ("two deliveries of relevant postal packets are").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 4, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 7. I should tell the Minister that both are probing amendments.

The Government are providing for one delivery of mail every working day and one collection of mail every working day. That is what we already expect, although I believe that it cannot always be achieved. The Bill excuses all geographical considerations such as, for example, the remoter parts of the United Kingdom where such a rate of delivery and collection is simply not reasonable or practical. It also excuses "other circumstances".

Those other circumstances are not defined, but common sense suggests that they may include strikes, snowstorms and events of that nature. However, one objective of the Bill is to enable the Post Office to improve and expand its services. The Post Office is of course a labour-intensive industry and a major part of its costs is the wage bill. There is no doubt that postmen work very hard. A great deal of their work is, rather like an iceberg, hidden beneath the surface. It is not a matter only of someone slipping a letter through the letter box. The mail has to be sorted by the postman into the correct order in which he will deliver it from door to door. Nevertheless, especially since the advent of electronic sorting methods--pioneered by the British Post Office--there is now a considerable amount of slack time available to the staff.

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Freed of the Treasury's insatiable demands for money, we hope that the Post Office will be able to improve its services. Were one to ask the public what improvements they most want to see, at the top of the list would be speedier and more frequent collections and deliveries; the one invariably follows from the other.

I am sufficiently old-fashioned to convert prices into pre-decimal money. However, I feel that I must stop saying that kind of thing when speaking from the Dispatch Box. I know that in the past I have said that I will not even use automatic machines. I should get myself modernised! Nevertheless, it is true that I do tend to think of such prices in pre-decimal money. As far as I am concerned, the cost of sending a letter by first-class mail is still five shillings and fourpence. Nowadays the Post Office has to compete with fax transfer, which is quicker, cheaper and much more reliable than the post. It also has to compete with e-mail, which is even faster and cheaper than the fax. The only way in which the Post Office will be able to meet such competition is by offering improved services.

We want the Post Office to be able to meet the new competition. I believe that that is the wish of every Member of the Committee. The current dictionary of buzz words includes the phrase, "value for money". I believe that the value for money to be found in my 5s.4d. is that someone at the Post Office should send my letter on its journey by, at the most, 12 hours after I have put it into the letter box and that letters arriving at my local sorting office should not lie in the pigeonhole for up to a whole day before someone delivers them.

I realise that that costs money, but the Post Office has the money and it could do no better than spend its resources on an improved service to customers. Nothing will be more valuable to customers and it will ensure that the Post Office survives well in the new climate. Furthermore, I think that the situation will certainly improve once the Post Office does not have to pay large dividends to the Treasury. I beg to move.

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