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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Baroness has had a distinguished governmental career in consumer protection. In the short debate on whether the House should dissolve itself into a Committee, she referred to the Post Office Users' National Council. The Bill sets out in some detail the procedures for consumer protection. When we come to that part of the Bill, we can certainly debate that. The whole object of having a consumer council is that individual consumers such as the noble Baroness will have an opportunity to protest and their protests will have to be listened to. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that that is a significant advance in consumer protection.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about "exceptional circumstances". One cannot provide for exceptional circumstances. Almost by definition, one cannot prescribe what they will be. They will have to be considered by the commission on a case-by-case basis. They are likely on the whole to be temporary. Where they can be identified in advance, as they might be in, say, remote islands of the west of Scotland, they must be notified by the operator, not only to the postal services commission, but also to the European Commission. So there is an extra level of protection in certain circumstances.
To return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, the Government are replacing the Post Office Users' National Council with a strong national body. I should have said that, until that body is established, complaints should be made to the existing Post Office Users' National Council, which is being reinvigorated with Peter Carr as its new chairman.
I gave a short and perhaps slightly flippant answer to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, about what is an "access point" and what are "geographical positions". An access point is defined in Clause 4(6). The term "geographical conditions" has its natural meaning--that is, areas could prove inaccessible because they are very isolated, difficult to reach in bad weather, or otherwise difficult to get to. Examples would be properties at the top of a mountain, or islands where there is an infrequent ferry service. That applies both to deliveries and collections.
My remarks should be taken as applying to all amendments from Amendment No. 4 to Amendment No. 18. I hope it is clear that what we are talking about is minimum standards, not the standards that we actually accept. The Government cannot see any reason to put a gloss on the postal services directive. In particular, there is no justification for prescribing unnecessarily areas which should be operational matters and should be the subject of the licence between the commission and the licensees.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps he can help me. I listened yesterday to Martin Stanley's very clear address to the conference. He said that he will be responsible for service standards. However, he said:
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: It is true that he does not report to the Minister. But when he says that he does what the law tells him to, the law not only sets out the minimum standards in Clause 4 but sets out the basis on which the postal services commission will license the operator to carry out the service. It is that law--namely, the licence contained within the law--to which I am sure Martin Stanley was referring.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that long answer. I should say at this stage that when he is talking about the universal service obligation we very much applaud the fact that the Government have decided to put that into law. I say that because I usually find every possible excuse to say why I do not agree with what the Government are doing. They cannot always be wrong. On that basis I feel it is right that I should give credit where credit is due.
I started my discussion on Amendments Nos. 4 and 7 by saying that they were probing amendments because I believe that it is all very well for the Minister to say all we can do is to put down the minimum standards that are necessary. The fact remains that part of the Bill is to deal with competition.
The postal services directives--the new European directives--certainly talk at great length about liberalising the market. If the Post Office that we all love so much and want to survive has to compete with various other bodies in a much more liberal market--a market in which the monopoly area is shrinking and where e-mail, fax and the other factors of human error and late delivery mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, and the noble Lord, Lord
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Before the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, does that--and I know that I am taking a lot of time on a single amendment but I think it is worth it because we are dealing with principles that apply throughout the amendments on Clause 4--she has just said some very remarkable things for a Conservative. She has said that she thinks there is a danger, with increased competition, that the universal service will be put at risk.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: No. I shall read very carefully what I did say. That certainly is not what I meant. What I meant was that we welcome the universal service obligation, but the Post Office itself, the new plc, may be at risk if there is all this competition with everything else and if the Post Office does not put itself into a position where it becomes more valuable to the consumer, particularly with e-mail. I said it was a probing amendment, and I hope that the Minister will take it away to consider. Therefore, we were hoping that there would be some further provision on the face of the Bill to ensure that the Post Office is able to compete in a way that will make it possible for people to continue to use it. That was the point I was making. I hope that the point is very clear in Hansard. I certainly do not say things that I think will be remarkable for a Conservative.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I accept that, of course. It may be that I was being elliptical. One has to take the Bill as a whole and take the balance between the service obligation and the reserved area provided in the European Union directive that allows member states to reserve part of the postal market in it as necessary to ensure and fund the provision of the universal postal service. That is the bargain that is struck, so to speak, in the European directive and in this legislation. It allows people acting in this area to cross-subsidise otherwise unprofitable aspects of the universal service such as long-distance deliveries at a uniform tariff. It is a requirement of the European Union postal services directive that the reserved area cannot be any greater than that needed to support the universal postal service. It is a matter, of course, for the regulator to advise the Secretary of State on the appropriate level of the reserved area, but it is clear that we shall be setting the level of the reserved area to ensure that the universal service provider is able to carry out its obligations.
It is in the interest of everyone who uses postal services that the working day should include Saturday. In Clause 117--at page 69 line 37--that is included. We all rely on having as close as possible to a daily delivery of post, a matter referred to by many Members of the Committee. I believe that it is so important that the universal postal obligation is described in full at the front of the Bill that the words describing "working day" in Clause 117 should be promoted in the Bill to this particular place. I beg to move.
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