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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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