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Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 234A:


The noble Lord said: I hope that this group of government amendments will prove to be slightly less controversial than the last group. All bar the last of these amendments relate to paragraph 1 of Schedule 11 to the Bill. The paragraph sets out the right of designated referendum organisations to send a free mailshot to every elector or household in the area in which the referendum is being held. As it stands, paragraph 1 refers to the Post Office and to Post Office regulations. This reflects the fact that, at present, the Post Office is the only universal postal service provider.

The Committee will remember well the Postal Services Act 2000. That Act will alter the framework for the provision of postal services in this country. Under the provisions of that Act, there may, in due course, be a number of licensed universal postal service providers, any one of which could deliver a free mailshot on behalf of a designated referendum organisation. These amendments take account of this new system of regulation for postal services. The amendments mirror those made by the Postal Services Act to Section 91 of the Representation of the People Act, which provides for a free mailshot for candidates at a parliamentary election.

Amendment No. 234L is concerned with those provisions of Schedule 11 governing referendum campaign broadcasts. Paragraph 4(4) places the licensing body under a duty to have regard to the views expressed by the electoral commission before it makes any rules under Sections 36 or 107 of the Broadcasting Act 1990. The amendment makes it clear that that duty extends only to views expressed by the commission in relation to referendum broadcasts. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor: I should like to ask the Minister two questions. First, he stated that the amendments make provision for universal postal service providers. Can he confirm my assumption that, in any given area, such a universal service provider would carry out exactly

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the same role as that which would have been provided by the Post Office and thus would be subject to the same regulations? Furthermore, do the regulations which are to apply come from the Postal Services Act 2000? If not, to which regulatory provisions would a universal postal service provider be subject?

Secondly, Amendment No. 234L refers to provisions on broadcasting during referendums. The Minister used a phrase which somewhat surprised me. He referred to the fact that a broadcaster would need to,


    "have regard to the views expressed by the electoral commission".

Is that not a slightly weak statement? I presume that any broadcasting body would be subject to the same full regulatory framework which applies to all the current broadcasters: the BBC, ITV and so forth. Can the noble Lord assure me that a new broadcaster, whether it be an Internet service or a cable company, will not only need to "have regard to", but will also be subject in exactly the same manner to the existing rules which pertain to broadcasts made during elections and referendums?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: Those of us who were engaged in the "Think Twice" campaign in Scotland preceding the establishment of the Scottish Parliament will recollect how helpful the Post Office was at that time. When we had gathered together sufficient money--the service was by no means free--the Post Office agreed to distribute our literature to every household in Scotland. Most conveniently, it was prepared to do so some five days after the referendum had taken place. Not surprisingly, we did not consider that to be the best use of our limited funds.

Can the Minister give the Committee a reassurance that the revised provisions in Schedule 11 would require the Post Office or a universal postal service provider to undertake such distribution exercises at a time falling within a reasonable period before the referendum takes place; namely, neither too far in advance, nor--as in the circumstances that we encountered--after the event?

Lord McNally: I should like to comment along similar lines. We should recall the experience of the election campaign for the Greater London Assembly. Only after this House insisted on it was a freepost granted. Given the "reasonable terms and conditions" which may be specified by the universal service provider, what would happen if one or other of the competing parties finds those conditions unsatisfactory? What right of appeal has been put in place for a party that wishes to seek redress? Problems may arise if a campaigning organisation wishes to specify that its literature will take a certain form. Alternatively, the universal service provider may attempt to insist on rather irksome conditions.

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A decision may seem reasonable from the universal service provider's point of view, but it may be quite unreasonable for one or other of the campaigning organisations. I should appreciate further clarification on the right of appeal.

Lord Bach: I think that I can give noble Lords the reassurances they seek.

The first amendment is consequential on changes to the framework of postal services being made by the recent Act. That Act enshrines in law a universal postal service which must be provided to all UK residents at a uniform tariff for postal packets weighing less than 20 kilograms. Certain postal operators who apply for a licence will be required to provide such services through the imposition of a licence condition. Those operators who are required by their licence to provide all or part of a universal postal service will be regarded as universal service providers. It is anticipated that the new Post Office plc will be such a provider, but in due course there may be others. The way in which they carry out their functions will need to be in accordance with the provisions laid down in the recent Act.

As regards the level of efficiency of such new providers, we cannot give any firm undertakings on that point. However, in response to the question put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, I am happy to give him the reassurance he seeks on that point.

So far as concerns the question about the electoral commission asked by the noble Viscount in relation to Amendment No. 234L, I can confirm that this amendment relates to referendum broadcasts; namely, the equivalent of party political election broadcasts, rather than to the general news coverage of referendums. In that sphere, the normal rules of balance and impartiality will continue to apply.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked about appeals mechanisms. Our view at present is that appeals would be made to the Post Office, but I should like to write to him in more detail. Furthermore, I shall ensure that a copy of that letter is placed in the Library.

4 p.m.

Viscount Astor: The Minister has given a helpful reply. However, I am not sure it has cleared up my question in relation to broadcasting. I shall read what he said and if I have any further questions, I shall write to him before the next stage. It is a technical point.

Perhaps the Minister can clarify this issue for the Committee. The amendment states,


    "such reasonable terms and conditions as the universal service provider concerned may specify".

If during a referendum the Post Office covers one area of the country and a universal service provider covers another, can the Minister give an assurance that those "reasonable terms and conditions" will not vary from area to area and that one service provider will not have

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different terms and conditions from another? It is important that the rules for all those involved in a referendum are the same throughout the country.

Lord Bach: The universal service providers will be under licence from the Post Office, which will specify what services the universal service providers must provide.

Viscount Astor: Does that mean that they will be the same throughout the country?

Lord Bach: They will be consistent. Whether they will be exactly the same, I cannot say.

Viscount Astor: I am sorry to come back on this, but it is rather bizarre that we might find ourselves in a position where different parts of England are subject to different terms and conditions during a referendum campaign. That is not terribly satisfactory. Perhaps between now and the next stage the Minister will consider this matter further and come back and clarify the position.

Lord Bach: Let us see whether I can do that now. Obviously there will be consistent specifications set out under the terms of the licence, but no one can say exactly when each of the universal service providers--if they exist at the time--will post the free mailshot through the door. To some extent, that will have to be at the discretion of the service providers. But a specification that it will have to be carried out by a certain time--it is no good doing it after the referendum, for example--will of course apply.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 234B to 234L:


    Page 146, line 20, leave out ("charge for postage") and insert ("any charge for postage which would otherwise be made by a universal service provider").


    Page 146, line 23, leave out ("regulations") and insert ("terms and conditions").


    Page 146, line 27, leave out ("those regulations") and insert ("any such terms and conditions").


    Page 146, line 28, after first ("of") insert ("any such").


    Page 146, line 31, leave out ("72 of the Post Office Act 1969 (remuneration of Post Office for") and insert ("200A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (remuneration of universal service provider for free postal").


    Page 146, line 33, leave out ("the Post Office") and insert ("a universal service provider").


    Page 146, line 34, leave out ("the Post Office in pursuance of the Representation of the People Act 1983") and insert ("such a provider in pursuance of that Act").


    Page 146, line 37, at end insert--


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