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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly to welcome consolidation in this matter. When noble Lords dealt with the 1999 European Parliamentary Elections Bill, leaving aside the merits—I should really say the "demerits"—of the Bill, one problem was that we were constantly having to refer back to other pieces of legislation. I welcome the fact that the legislation is to be consolidated so that when we come to amend it, to get rid of what proved to be a totally disastrous system of election to the European Parliament, the amendments will be much easier to follow than they would have been without consolidation.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I said that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, would

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find it quite impossible to remain silent on this totally formal piece of parliamentary business. My comment does not relate to European legislation but to the Scotland Act on which the House had the good fortune to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for many hours. Had it not been for the generosity of the Government and those sitting on these Benches, there would have been only one directly elected Member of the Scottish Parliament, a matter which he, no doubt, would like to recall when he makes his next speech on a consolidation Bill!

On Question, Bill read a second time, and referred to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills.

Postal Services Bill

3.33 p.m.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 69:


    After Clause 67, insert the following new clause—

PUBLICATION OF PARTICULARS OF ACQUISITIONS AND DISPOSALS

(" .—(1) Where the Post Office company or any relevant subsidiary proposes to acquire or dispose of an undertaking or any interest in an undertaking and—
(a) the gross assets of that undertaking or attributable to that interest are equal to more than 10 per cent. of the gross assets of the Post Office company or the relevant subsidiary; or
(b) the turnover of that undertaking or attributable to that interest is equal to more than 10 per cent. of the turnover of the Post Office company or the relevant subsidiary; or
(c) the net profits of that undertaking or attributable to that interest are equal to more than 10 per cent. of the net profits of the Post Office company or the relevant subsidiary,
the Post Office company or the relevant subsidiary must as soon as practicable publish a notice in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) A notice under this subsection must be published in the London Gazette, the Edinburgh Gazette and the Belfast Gazette in such form as the Secretary of State may prescribe and must include—
(a) the name of the undertaking;
(b) a description of the business carried on by the undertaking and, where the transaction is an acquisition or disposal of an interest in the undertaking, a description of the business attributable to that interest;
(c) the effect of the transaction and, in particular, the benefits which the directors expect to accrue to the Post Office company or any relevant subsidiary;

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(d) the price (or the monetary value of any other consideration) to be paid or received by the Post Office company or any relevant subsidiary and, in the case of a disposal how the proceeds of the disposal are to be applied; and
(e) if any securities are to be issued as a result of the transaction, the nature and amount of those securities.
(3) In this section "gross assets" means total fixed assets and total current assets.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment was debated at the very end of the previous session of the Committee stage. The debate came to an abrupt end because I was not satisfied with the answer from the Minister and I sought to test the opinion of the House. Unfortunately, the Government had not retained enough of their supporters to ensure a quorum and the House was counted out—

Lord Carter: Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain why two of her colleagues on the Back Benches, who had taken a keen interest in the Bill, did not vote on that occasion, even though they were in the Chamber?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I am afraid I find that impossible to explain. It is quite possible that my noble friends were pleased for the House to be counted out. I know not; I am simply supposing.

I do not want to delay your Lordships by repeating everything that I said on that occasion. On re-reading the debate in Hansard, I am still utterly convinced that the principle that I was arguing was correct. That is that if the Post Office engaged in major acquisitions or disposals it should publish details at the earliest opportunity in the same way as though it was a company quoted on the Stock Exchange. I cannot see how that would put it at any disadvantage as the Minister suggested. Such details are published almost on a daily basis by ordinary plcs, if only to ensure that their shareholders are aware of what is going on before they make any decisions about buying or selling. The Government promised us openness in their dealings, and they are offering a regime whereby the public and Parliament will merely be presented with a fait accompli.

I have to tell your Lordships that certain information came to me late yesterday and I have not had a chance to verify it. I have already discussed this matter with the Minister. That information suggests that there is a cogent reason why the Government should have included this matter in the Bill themselves. I hope that the Minister will now agree that the principle is correct and, therefore, that on Report he will put down a government amendment. I believe that it would be ridiculous to pass the Bill in its present form and six months or a year down the line to have to bring it back to deal with this matter.

I await the Minister's response with considerable interest. I hope that he can assure me that he will be able to table an amendment at Report stage. As I told the Minister, if he feels unable to do that, I shall certainly table a re-drafted amendment myself. I accept that the amendment that I had tabled and

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which was drafted for me by someone who was briefing me on this matter, was rather wider than the Stock Exchange rules would require. If the Minister, on behalf of the Government, feels unable to deal with the matter I shall bring it back in a new form. I beg to move.

Lord Razzall: I assume that the answer to the question posed by the noble Baroness as to why she could not maintain the necessary quorum when the vote was taken last week was because she made the mistake of saying that this amendment was my idea, despite the fact that I happened to be out of the country. Indeed, it was a point that I made at Second Reading, as the noble Baroness kindly indicated. I agree with much of what was said in the previous debate. I also agree with the Minister's comment because the amendment, as drafted by the noble Baroness and as she has indicted, would go too far and would put the Post Office at more of a commercial disadvantage than I had intended when I made the point at Second Reading. I do not wish to detain the House and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

Lord Skelmersdale: This issue appears to be a matter of timing. When we last debated this, the Minister pointed out that he was seeking to establish a level playing field with the rest of industry. I take the point and I readily understand it. None the less, as my noble friend has said, occasions do arise in a commercial situation, in particular towards the end of the process, when shareholders are informed. I see absolutely no reason why Parliament and others should not be informed at roughly the same point were a disposal, share exchange or other business move planned by the Post Office with the agreement of the Government.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I am sorry that the noble Baroness was not overly enthusiastic about my response when we last discussed this. However, I think that very little separates the noble Baroness and myself on this point, although we take a different view on the details.

The noble Baroness has said that the key issue here is transparency and I have no quarrel whatever with the notion that the Post Office company should be as transparent as any listed company in the kind of transactions that are described in the amendment.

Where I part company with the noble Baroness is on what those listing rules require. The listing rules require that a company, in certain circumstances, announces on acquisition, once the terms of such a transaction have been agreed. The amendment talks in terms of announcing details when the company proposes a transaction. As I said last week, no other commercial company would be required to publish its intentions to acquire or dispose of any undertaking in the way that would be required by this amendment.

In seeking to give the Post Office—and the future Post Office company—the greater commercial freedom that everyone agrees is necessary, we are endeavouring to transform the Post Office company

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into a commercial company, governed by normal company legislation. It is our intention that the Post Office should provide transparent information on completed acquisitions along the lines of the London Stock Exchange disclosure requirements. The Post Office is now doing so. I hope that this gives the kind of assurance that the noble Baroness seeks.

Perhaps I may make one further point very clear. If it appears that what we are proposing falls in any way short of the London Stock Exchange disclosure requirements, we shall certainly look at the issue again. I trust that this explanation gives sufficient comfort to enable the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.


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