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Lord Judd: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, will he say whether the Government are prepared to consider an inquiry?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have just said that I am sorry to say that we are not convinced that an official inquiry would be a good use of public resources.

Postal Services Bill

8.30 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 44 [Review and information]:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 35:

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 35 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 36. Clause 44 provides for the commission to gather information about postal services in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. When the clause was considered in Committee in another place, the words "other member States" were not included. Therefore Clause 44(1)(a) and (b) simply referred to,

    "the United Kingdom and elsewhere".

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My honourable friend the Member for Rutland and Melton proposed amendments to add the words "the European Community" after "United Kingdom". I shall explain in a few moments why he chose to use the words "European Community" rather than "European Union". At first the Minister responsible for competition in the other place rejected the amendment. He did so on the ground that "elsewhere" covers the European Community as well as the rest of the world. However, later in the same debate he relented. He said that a speech by my honourable friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire had almost made him change his mind. He said,

    "We shall reconsider the drafting of the clause so that we can deal with that valid point on Report".

The Committee will note the words "valid point". The Government were almost as good as their word and added three words. The two paragraphs now refer to,

    "the United Kingdom, other member States and elsewhere".

The three words that were added were "other member States". But unless I have missed a definition somewhere during my repeated reading of the Bill, there is no definition of "member states". Member states are members of what--the EC or the EU, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, NATO, or what?

At a meeting I had with the Minister, which he kindly granted on Monday, it was suggested that the definition was to be found in the Interpretation Act 1978. After that meeting I scoured that Act line by line, not once but three times, the final time running down every page with a ruler. I simply could not find the definition. Perhaps it had been added to the text of that Bill by some later Bill; or perhaps, not being a lawyer, I have stupidly overlooked it anyway.

The point is that if I, actively looking where I was told to look, cannot readily find it, how can any other ordinary citizen be expected to do so? What is even more to the point, why should anyone wanting to consult the Act have to trawl through the statute book to discover what this provision means?

The words "European Community" and "European Union" are not ineffable phrases to be uttered only by the High Priest. I accept that there are Members on both sides of this Chamber and of the other place who can say them only through clenched teeth, but there is no reason why the Government should be so coy and leave an ambiguity in the Bill. They were not frightened to say exactly what they meant in the Explanatory Notes provided by the Department of Trade and Industry where it states:

    "Clause 44 requires the Commission to keep under review and collect information about the provision of postal services in the United Kingdom, other member States of the European Community and elsewhere".

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 simply plug the hole and say exactly what they are talking about, and more fully cover what the Minister in the other place admitted was a valid point.

The reason I have used the phrase "European Community" rather than "European Union" is that that is the wording that my honourable friend used in

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his amendment in the other place. He did so because, as he explained, the European Community is one of the components of the European Union.

Pursuant to EU legislation, it is Community institutions which undertake measures which relate to the single market, including the continuing review of postal services. My honourable friend insisted that he was not just engaging in what he called "techno-babble". He just wanted to ensure that the focus of the review and the collection of information entrusted to the commission was well directed. Indeed he could have gone further and pointed out that "European Community" was the phrase used in the Government's own notes to this clause that I have just referred to. All that I ask for is the addition of four little words. They will not bring down the whole edifice of this Bill. Superfluous or not, they will make it clearer to the man in the street and to this Peer at the Dispatch Box.

Earlier I mentioned to the Minister that I was surprised that he did not feel able to humour me on a simple, non-controversial amendment. I hope that on this occasion the Minister will feel able to humour me and accept these two amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: It is clearly not only men who believe in belt and braces; my noble friend clearly also believes in them.

As a Member of the House--I am sure that there are many others in the Chamber at present--who is a member of one of the sub-committees of the European Union Committee (I sit on Sub-Committee B which considers energy, industry and transport), I am well aware that there is another draft directive from Brussels winging its way towards the committee office. Doubtless I shall consider it in due course.

My noble friend is quite right to say that, thanks to the activities of my honourable friend in another place, this Bill now belatedly refers to member states of the European Community. She rightly says that the technical term ought to be "European Union" but, none the less, some analogous words most certainly ought to be included in the Bill.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The term "member States" means member states of the European Communities. This is the legal interpretation of this phrase according to the Interpretation Act 1978. I may have inadvertently wasted some of the noble Baroness's time on this matter. That Act applies the definitions in the European Communities Act 1972. The definition of the term is to be found in Schedule 1. I hope that I can rather belatedly direct the Committee in the right direction.

I do not believe that many people on the Clapham Omnibus seek the definitions we are discussing. However, legislation should be interpreted by reference to the Interpretation Act. We have not defined this term because, where terms or expressions are defined in the Interpretation Act, they are not defined in the Bill. Under the Interpretation Act, the only definition of "member States" refers to member

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states of the European Communities. All Acts of Parliament must be construed in accordance with the Interpretation Act. This ensures consistent construction of particular words and phrases.

I am sympathetic to the spirit of Amendments Nos. 35 and 36. However, I believe that we should adhere to the proper way of drafting this legislation. I therefore ask that Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 be withdrawn.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: It is very good of the Minister to be sympathetic towards me. However, I do not think that that is quite the same as humouring me. Having said that, I understand how interpretations and words have to be correct.

It is a great pity that I was referred to the Interpretation Act 1978. The noble Lord was right gently to apologise for wasting my time. Research facilities are available to the Opposition as they are to the Government. I am dealing with a large number of amendments and I think my time is extraordinarily precious; I regret having to go up and down three times--and with a ruler no less. In the end I could not believe that it was so impossible to find.

I accept from the Minister that the man on the Clapham omnibus will certainly not trawl through this Bill, the Interpretation Acts and so on; I understand that totally. Having received that information from the Minister, I gladly withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 36 not moved.]

8.45 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon moved Amendment No. 37:

    Page 28, line 37, at end insert ("including comparative information on the efficiency and economy of the provision of such services").

The noble Lord said: I notice that my Amendment No. 37 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 38 and 39; I had not noticed that before.

As the Minister knows, I was asked to table this amendment by the Periodical Publishers Association, of which I happen to be vice-president because of my previous activities as a publisher of engineering magazines, among other things.

It is a very mild amendment. It follows from conversations between the PPA and a variety of organisations, including the Ministry, the commission and other relevant bodies. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak at Second Reading--it would have saved some time today--but I wrote to the Minister stating more or less what I would have said had I spoken in the debate. I gave him to understand that I would very likely bring forward an amendment of this kind. My letter used the same words as I have put down tonight.

I am happy to say that I received an extremely courteous letter from the Minister, which did not surprise me. It dealt with my arguments and threw them into the long grass with considerable vigour. It pointed out that my amendment was not wanted. The

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letter ended with a well-known Whitehall phrase, with which many members of the Committee will be familiar. It stated:

    "I hope that this reply is helpful".

I do not know whether I should like to receive a letter from the Minister when he is trying to be unhelpful. But there we are; I know what he meant. The fundamental argument was that my very modest amendment--it is so modest to be almost feeble; I am slightly ashamed to table such a feeble amendment; I have never done so before--was thought to be too prescriptive. I understand that line of argument, but quite a few parts of the Bill already are prescriptive. For example under Clauses 4 and 5 the commission is obliged to do a number of the things listed. One cannot get more prescriptive than obliging someone to do something. Look also at Clauses 11 to 14, which deal with licensing. To my mind, those clauses are fairly prescriptive.

In any case, what is so terrible about being prescriptive? Is not that what governments are sometimes for? Are they not supposed to be prescriptive? Are they not quite often prescriptive? I understand the Minister's position on this occasion. It is one I have come across before when dealing with Ministers from whatever side of the House I happen to be sitting on at the time. The philosophy is quite simple. The Government--I should blame the Government rather than the Minister--are quite willing to be prescriptive when they want to be, but they are unwilling to be prescriptive when I want them to be. I know that argument; I have come across it many times.

Perhaps I may say something about the background which gives rise to this amendment. It derives from the activities of magazine publishers. Magazine publishing is very big business nowadays--much bigger than it was 20 or 30 years ago--and magazine publishers are important customers of the Post Office. In the region of 700 million magazines are posted every year--and mostly read, I suppose--which costs the industry approximately £250 million in postage. It is the Post Office's third largest revenue stream. That surprised me, but it seems to be the case. So the magazine industry is a very important customer.

Over the past 10 years the cost of deliveries by Royal Mail has risen from about a third of the non-editorial costs to about half. It is a substantial burden on the industry. The PPA believes that economies could be made which could possibly lead to a reduction in these rather heavy postage charges. It would like to see safeguards in the Bill such as would arise from my amendment.

The PPA has had discussions with officials of the commission, which appears to accept that comparisons between the charges of the Post Office and the charges of other deliverers should be made. The commission stated:

    "Because collecting comparative efficiency data will be part of our work we do not in practice see any difficulties with the amendment you now propose".

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So the commission is happy with the amendment; I am happy with the amendment; the PPA is happy with the amendment; and I am quite sure that the Minister, having had time to think it over, will also be happy with the amendment.

It is a modest amendment which would strengthen the Bill and allay the fears of the magazine industry--which is, as I say, one of the Post Office's biggest revenue providers. I beg to move.

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