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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Baroness. I am not certain that her amendment deals with the particular issue she raised. Essentially, it demands procedures for representations; that would add to rather than reduce the complexity of the issue of paid committees.

I am entirely sympathetic to the view--which is the point of the amendment--that any committee of a council should establish adequate procedures to fulfil its role of the provision of advice and information to the council about relevant postal issues affecting the area for which it is established, as required by Clause 54(5)(a). However, Clause 54(5)(b) gives the council an important discretion as to what other purposes any committee should have.

It needs to be borne in mind that the term "regional committee" in the Bill includes both committees established for a whole country and any areas within that. This amendment presupposes that they all should have the same role in receiving, examining and reporting on representations. The council may find it sensible to arrange matters so that some committees reported to others on certain matters rather than to the council itself in the first instance. The council should be left with the flexibility to decide on these matters in the best way calculated to ensuring that it can fulfil its duty in Clause 54(1) of having regard to the different interests of different users of relevant postal services in different areas.

This amendment, for example, would force a regional committee to examine and report to the council on complaints by users or recipients of postal services should they make such representations to it. The council has the power to delegate its functions to committees. Clause 56 requires the council to investigate complaints which have not been satisfactorily dealt with by the provider of the relevant postal service and any delegation of that role should be left to its discretion. The amendment would force the council to give this function to committees. The council may wish the committees to have a mainly advisory rule and not to play a significant part in operational matters dealing with complaints.

The noble Baroness raised the question of cost. The amendment could lead to increased cost for the council, as all its committees would be forced to have resources to examine and report on representations on any matters put to it. The amendment also refers to

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"postal services". The noble Baroness has previously expressed concern about the council having too wide a role. I hope she will agree that the remit of any "regional committees" should be limited to "relevant postal services", as defined in Clause 51, and its functions in relation to public post offices in Clause 57. As drafted, the amendment does not link the matters of concern to postal services but merely states that users or recipients of postal services are the persons who are entitled to make representations. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his courteous answer and also for the fact that he had some sympathy with my amendment. I am not altogether sure that I understand the point that if my proposal were to be adopted and there were more voluntary people that would cost more. I shall certainly read the Minister's comments carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 2:

    Page 79, line 35, after ("and") insert (", subject to sub-paragraph (5),").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 45, 46, 67 and 73. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 disapply the requirement for giving notice on proposals to set up committees for England or for areas within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under Clause 54(4)(b) or (c). Since POUNC has conducted a wide-ranging consultation on regional representation this spring, these amendments seek to avoid duplication of this consultation within what is likely to be less than a 12 month period which would delay the establishment of the committees.

Amendment No. 45 introduces transitional provisions to ensure the smooth transition from the existing regime of four councils to the new consumer council for postal services. Subsections (1) and (2) enable the Secretary of State to make an order to transfer property, rights and liabilities. Subsection (3) applies the provisions in paragraphs 1 and 7 of Schedule 3 to POUNC and the CCPS to allow the certain actions of POUNC to be continued by the new council and to protect third party rights. Subsections (4) and (5) preserve the employment rights of any staff seconded from the Civil Service to POUNC at the time of the transfer that choose to transfer to the CCPS. Subsection (6) defines what is meant by the term "Country Council" in this section.

Amendment No. 46 is required to allow both the Post Office company and the CCPS to operate properly. The Post Office company will obtain all its rights, property, and so on, by virtue of Clause 62, and all information belonging to the Post Office will transfer over to the Post Office company under this clause. Similarly, the CCPS will obtain information under the transfer envisaged by Amendment No. 45. Therefore, that information will be caught by Schedule 7 and without this amendment the Post

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Office and the CCPS would be prevented under the terms of that schedule from disclosing that information. That may well prevent the Post Office company and the CCPS from legitimately carrying out their business. Therefore, we have made exceptions to the general prohibition on disclosure of information in this schedule.

Amendment No. 67 is needed in consequence of paragraph 9 of Schedule 2 to the Bill which concerns pensions. It adds the Consumer Council for Postal Services to Schedule 1 to the Superannuation Act 1972.

Amendment No. 73 repeals the reference to the Post Office Users' Council in Section 14 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. That provision is no longer necessary as it is superseded by paragraph 1(3) of Schedule 2. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 80, line 2, at end insert--

("(5) The requirements of sub-paragraphs (2) to (4) do not apply to the establishment of any committee within the period of two months beginning with the day on which section 54(4) comes into force.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 4:

    Page 2, line 32, leave out from beginning to ("are") in line 33 and insert ("the service of conveying relevant postal packets from one place to another by post and the incidental services of receiving, collecting, sorting and delivering such packets").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 9, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62 and 63. These are drafting amendments intended to tidy up and clarify the Bill. They deal primarily with the definitions of postal services, postal operator, post office, universal postal service post office and related consequential amendments. Together they ensure that references throughout the Bill are consistent. They narrow the definition of postal services, postal operator and post office to prevent catching persons or places only involved in the provision of related postal services; for example, the sale of stamps by a newsagent or the sale of envelopes by a stationer. These amendments ensure that these related services are caught only if they are provided in conjunction with the conveying, receiving, sorting, collecting and delivering of such packets. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, in calling Amendment No. 4A, I must point out that there is a mistake in the final line as printed. The final line of the amendment should be deleted and,

    "community of 10,000 people or less",

should be inserted. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for pointing out this mistake to me.

Clause 5 [Other duties of the Commission in the consumer interest:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 4A:

    Page 3, line 37, at end insert--

("( ) The Commission shall exercise its functions in the manner which it considers best calculated to ensure the maintenance of a network of rural post offices at a level comparable with that which existed on the day on which this Act was passed.
( ) In this section, a rural post office means a post office serving a community of 10,000 people or less.")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I must apologise to the House because it is somewhat unusual to bring forward an amendment at this late stage. The amendment was tabled at the last minute, yesterday evening. On the other hand, it was equally unusual, I suggest, for a Statement, such as we heard yesterday, to be made so close to the Report stage. That will explain why there is the mistake in the bottom line; it was all done in rather a rush. Therefore, I ask the indulgence of the House. As I say to the Minister on many occasions, I hope that he will humour me on this amendment and not be cross.

Perhaps I may say at the outset that we welcome the fact that the Government have a package designed to help sub-post offices. We know the value of these rural post offices to their local communities. We know, too, that it is essential that we try to do everything we can to keep them. The Minister said yesterday that the Government are committed to ensuring that the rural post office network is maintained. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve.

We have suggested on numerous occasions that matters ought to be on the face of the Bill and the Minister answers in the same way--very politely but always the same answer--that this is a matter for the regulator to decide and that it does not need to be on the face of the Bill. The intention that these rural sub-post offices should be retained is an admirable one. Many questions were asked yesterday about how that would happen but no satisfactory answers were given. Therefore, it is possible that it will not happen. We want to ensure that it does.

I do not wish to repeat many of the questions asked yesterday by my noble friend Lady Buscombe and indeed one which certainly will be addressed by my noble friend Lady Byford. However, by way of example, we should like to know from where the money is to come. Much was said by the Government about how the banks' expertise would form a part of the package. Does that mean that the banks intend to put money into this, or will that expertise comprise

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only expert help and assistance? More specifically, with regard to this amendment, what does an "unavoidable closure" mean? That phrase is rather loose and we are a little concerned about it.

In Committee we made it clear that we are not seeking subsidies. What we want--I believe the wish is shared by all noble Lords in this House and, indeed, the Government--is to ensure that all sub-post offices will be in a position to handle sufficient business to enable them to function profitably. However, we acknowledged at the time that the new clause introduced to deal with subsidies was probably necessary in the event that, if all else failed, a permissive power would be in place to deal with the problem, should it arise. However, I made much of the fact that the new clause was added only after a rally of 2,000 sub-postmasters in Westminster Hall and the submission of a petition comprising 3 million signatures to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. It struck me at the time that the clause was introduced as a response to a problem that suddenly became apparent. The Government felt that it was necessary to take some action.

The transformation of sub-post offices into universal banks will, I assume, require further primary legislation after this Bill has been enacted. We feel, however, that unless some form of provision is put on to the face of this Bill, what has been promised will happen may not happen. If the Government are certain that they do intend to pursue this course, then they should have no difficulty about adding a few words to the legislation before us today.

In our amendment we have been modest in the terms that were so ably corrected by the Chairman of Committees, the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham. We have asked only to consider a community of not more than 10,000 people, which matches the description given in yesterday's Statement. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, because I, too, have put my name to this amendment, perhaps I may be allowed to utter a few words in support of it. Ever since the Government's decision to reverse the previous government's intentions on the payment of social security benefits through post offices, the future of sub-post offices has been the subject of a longstanding debate. After all that has been written and said on the issue, it boils down to a simple question: can they survive the introduction of payments by automated credit transfer to the 85 per cent of the population with bank accounts? To put it another way, can they survive on the minority that insists on being paid in cash? The Government believe that the sub-post offices can do so; they have stated that over and over again. Indeed, we heard that repeated in the Government's Statement made yesterday when the Minister introduced us to the long-awaited Performance and Innovation Unit report on modernising the Post Office network.

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The report concludes that it may be necessary to provide subsidies. After a great deal of argument and persuasion in another place, the Government have provided a power in what is now Clause 103 so to do. However, that is simply not enough. Yesterday the Minister was asked twice whether the findings of the report would necessitate introducing amendments to this Bill. To be fair to the Minister--I try to be fair to him on occasion--he told us, as he had told us previously, that it would not be necessary. However, now that I have had an opportunity to read the report, I must say that I disagree with him.

Each one of us, regardless of on which side of the debate we stand, agrees, in the words of 1066 and All That, that rural sub-post offices are, "a good thing". Several noble Lords, not least my noble friend Lady Byford, have waxed lyrical on the subject, and quite rightly so. Their practical and social functions cement present-day rural life even more than do, I am afraid, the churches or even village pubs. I believe that we are all agreed on that.

The PIU report makes it quite clear that sub-post offices should be preserved--not in aspic, but to prevent any avoidable closures. Noble Lords have only to turn to the Executive Summary to see the sixth bullet point where it states that:

    "Rural post offices should be protected".

On further reading, on page 85 it states that:

    "The Government should place a formal requirement on the Post Office to maintain the rural network, and to prevent any avoidable closures of rural post offices".

It goes on to say that the Government,

    "needs to send a clear signal",

to that effect.

What could be clearer than to put on to the face of the Bill words such as those set down in this amendment?

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