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Lord Carter: I know that the noble Baroness feels very strongly about the issue and I understand that. However, I believe that she is not actually moving her amendment. Is that correct?

Baroness Byford: I have not decided yet.

Lord Carter: Have we reached this amendment on the Marshalled List? Is the noble Baroness moving her amendment?

Lord Skelmersdale: Perhaps I can help the Chief Whip and my noble friend Lady Byford. I agree with

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the Chief Whip that my noble friend has now spoken for so long that she really has to move her amendment in order to withdraw it at the conclusion of her remarks. Clearly, she has not come to the end of them, and I suggest that the Committee let her get on with it.

Baroness Byford: I am sorry; I thought I had moved it at the beginning.

Lord Carter: In asking the noble Baroness to move her amendment that does not mean that she has to vote on it.

Baroness Byford: I apologise to the Committee and particularly to the Chief Whip. I am speaking to the amendment, which I have moved. With hindsight, I apologise. I am 10 minutes too late in what I should have done.

I should be grateful if the Minister could answer my question. In response to the earlier debate, he indicated that it might not be the Post Office which organises welfare benefit payments, but that it might be the commission or the Countryside Agency. Could the Minister tell me whether there have been any contact or negotiations with that agency? I beg to move.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are two issues involved. One is the subsidy issue. I hope I have made clear that, if we have a subsidy scheme, it has not been decided who it would be. Therefore, there have been no discussions with the various bodies. As there are alternative bodies, it might not be sensible at this point to say that it would be done through the commission.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for that response. Could I ask him why he particularly mentioned the Countryside Agency?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I was simply trying to illustrate the kind of body which might be considered in these circumstances, given their experience. That is not the same as saying, "We have had discussions". It simply illustrates that at this stage there are a range of bodies, and the Countryside Agency is one of them.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for his response. I clearly do not want to take up any more of the Committee's time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, for his contribution to our discussions. It does not remove my commitment to what I believe is causing many people great concern. I shall look at Hansard very carefully. I hope that, in the meantime, the Government—if not the Minister, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis—will provide more answers to our questions before the next stage. With those comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 98 to 101 not moved.]

Clause 102 agreed to.

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6.45 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 102:


    After Clause 102, insert the following new clause—

INVIOLABILITY OF MAILS

(" .—(1) Subsection (2) applies to—
(a) a postal packet,
(b) anything contained in a postal packet, and
(c) a mail-bag containing a postal packet,
which is not the property of the Crown but which is in the course of transmission by post.
(2) Anything to which this subsection applies shall have the same immunity from—
(a) examination, or seizure or detention, under a relevant power conferred by virtue of this Act or any other enactment,
(b) seizure under distress or in execution,
(c) in Scotland, any diligence, and
(d) retention by virtue of a lien,
as it would have if it were the property of the Crown.
(3) In subsection (2) "relevant power" means any power other than—
(a) a power conferred by section 47 so far as it is exercised for any purpose connected with the investigation of an offence under section 6 or any proceedings for such an offence,
(b) a power conferred under section 49,
(c) a power conferred by an enactment relating to customs or excise in its application, by virtue of section 103 or any regulations made under that section, to goods contained in postal packets, or
(d) a power conferred by section 104 or 105.
(4) The Secretary of State may by order modify subsection (3).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 103 [Application of customs and excise enactments to certain postal packets]:

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 103:


    Page 62, line 20, leave out ("other country") and insert ("country or territory outside the United Kingdom").

The noble Lord said: This group of amendments includes a number of minor drafting amendments to the Bill; the extension of certain provisions in the Bill to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; and an amendment to enactments and repeals of existing legislation. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 104:


    Page 62, line 25, at end insert—


("( ) Nothing in this section or any of the enactments referred to in subsection (1) shall be taken to authorise the imposition of any obligation upon a particular postal operator or class of postal operators in a manner which—
(a) imposes an undue financial or administrative burden on that postal operator or class of postal operators; or
(b) otherwise distorts competition in the provision of postal services.").

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The noble Baroness said: This is a short probing amendment. I hope that the Minister is able to give me some information because it is a very important matter. Its purpose is to elicit from the Government a clear commitment that when applying any Customs legislation the Customs and Excise will provide a level playing field among postal operators, either providers of a universal postal service or licensees. There has to be a guarantee that competition will not be distorted, either accidentally, or deliberately by selectively imposing controls and regulations on certain operators or certain classes of operators.

No VAT is paid on postage by the sender of mail. VAT is paid by the courier services on their charges for domestic and EU movements, although international movements are free of VAT. I am not advocating the charging of VAT on postage, or the reduction of VAT levied on the courier companies, even if any of them become licensees or universal postal service providers. That is something that they have hitherto had to contend with and have none the less been able to compete with the Post Office. However, there is what the industry itself describes without exaggeration as a potential disaster looming in the United Kingdom parcel industry.

With effect from July—just over a year away from now—Customs and Excise intend to introduce a new electronic export system, which will completely change how parcel operators will be required to work. At present, they are using a paper-based system. Shipments are keyed into a computer and shipping manifests are then printed out. These printed manifests are presented to Customs at the export airport. Customs scan the manifests, select anything that they want to examine, and allow the rest to go on their way. Then within 14 days the shipping company has to provide a detailed schedule for all shipments valued at more than £600.

The drastic change that Customs are proposing is that all shipments will have to be declared pre-shipment to the Government's computer. There is also a proposal for the declaration to include an eight-digit tariff code. That is not to be mandatory—at least, not for the moment—but Customs and Excise have said that without it the clearance of shipments may be delayed to allow for manual scrutiny of the data. Therefore, in order to obtain quick clearance—or, putting it another way, to avoid the delay of shipments—highly skilled staff will be required to select the correct code for each item out of thousands of possible codes and to import them on to the forms. I should tell the Minister that I was faxed such a form and believe that it would be a nightmare to deal with it all properly.

It involves every item that is being exported. The encoding will in any case delay dispatch and mean that very late pick-up from customers will become impractical, resulting in a much poorer service. In addition, a message will have to be sent for every shipment when the goods arrive at the airport, followed by a later one when the goods have gone on. And, as though that is not enough, a full declaration has to follow, with details of high-value shipments.

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The industry claims that this massive increase in red tape will be catastrophic, first, on the ground of cost. Each declaration will cost approximately 20p per item. That is because, in order to comply with the demands of Customs and Excise, carriers will need to create an export brokerage department to make the entries and to include the tariff codes. Secondly, no shipments will be able to move from warehouse to airport, or from airport onwards, until positive clearance has been received from the Customs computer. Keying in that information will take a considerable amount of time, thus delaying all the traffic and necessitating an earlier pick-up.

The four major operators in this field estimate that to implement and operate the new system will cost them no less than £5 million a year. And that is without counting the cost of lost business if the carriers have to pick up earlier in the day and the delay while all the data is entered on to the computers.

The industry provides a vital service in the form of guaranteed deliveries of time-sensitive material—for example, material dispatched from the United Kingdom to reach destinations in the USA the next morning by the start of their working day. The point is that this procedure, with all the risks of delay, does not now and will not in the future apply to the Post Office or to Parcelforce. In other words, the Bill, which is to create competition, will be anti-competitive in this area.

The dice are being deliberately loaded against the independent operators. The excess cost and delay will inevitably fall on our exporters to the detriment of the economy. Furthermore, some of the smaller operators will have to go out of business because of the cost, the problem of recruiting skilled staff and the disproportionate management burden that the new system will impose upon them.

It is difficult to see to what end the requirement is directed, except to enable Customs and Excise to claim that they have modernised—and that seems to be an in-word. During our debates on the Bill we have spoken of competition and I know that Members of the Committee will accept that we have done our best to protect the Post Office in those areas in which it should be protected. The previous amendment showed that most clearly. However, the other side of the coin is to make it competitive for other operators to come in, and to benefit the Post Office, too, so that they can compete with postal companies across the world. But with obligations on one side and not on the other, that is difficult.

I cannot see that the provision would produce an extra penny in revenue or detect one extra restricted export. Customs and Excise have recently stated that under the new system there will be no more examinations than under the current system of spot checks. Customs and Excise will continue to depend on what the dispatching company tells them its customers have told it. The fact is that at the moment the Post Office enjoys exemption from these declarations, or a more favourable regime in relation to them. And it will continue to do so. It is being given

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an unfair advantage; that is, a reduction in costs and the possibility of avoiding delay which the present independent operators will have to put up with.

The amendment, which I have described as probing, requires a specific answer to the specific problems that I have outlined. I and the industry, which is vital to our export trade, await to hear what the Government will do to prevent it being severely harmed for no other purpose, it would seem, than to facilitate the administrative procedures of the Customs and Excise. Perhaps the Minister will explain that and why the requirement should not apply to everyone or to no one. I beg to move.


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