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Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she explain the Government's thinking in relation to Clause 12 of the Bill, which provides that, in the event of election for court martial, the court martial may not impose a more severe sentence than that available to the commanding officer? If, as I believe the Minister would agree, it is desirable that an accused serviceman or woman should prefer to be tried by the commanding officer, is it not a mistake to depart from the civilian rule that the higher court can impose a higher sentence than that available to the court of summary jurisdiction?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I heard with great interest the point made by the noble and learned Lord in his earlier intervention. This issue is about the balance referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in his brief intervention. We believe that the clause is compatible with the ECHR; but at the same time, we wish to see it compatible in such a way that it upholds the authority of the commanding officer. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, there has to be a balance throughout between, on the one hand, justice to individuals and, on the other, the discipline of the Armed Forces. The Government believe that the clause strikes that balance in a proper and adequate way.

Lord Renton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene. I hope that she did not misunderstand my remarks. If she did, it is probably my fault for not expressing myself clearly enough.

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I was not suggesting that where there is a conflict between discipline and justice, or between human rights and any other provision of law, the Bill should do anything other than maintain discipline, especially for time of war.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord was admirably clear in his remarks. He left the House in no doubt that his judgment was as he has just reaffirmed it. My point in mentioning the noble Lord's intervention was that I thought it crystallised absolutely the argument about the Bill; namely, whether we have struck the right balance between justice to individuals on the one hand and Armed Forces discipline on the other. The argument that he raised crystallised the point, although we might have rather different views as to whether or not the legislation meets the point. I believe it does. Perhaps the noble Lord will take a different view, but during the Committee stage I hope I may be able to persuade him a little more to my way of thinking.

From these Benches we appreciate that there are those who fear that any change to service discipline procedures will undermine the military ethos and discipline. I suspect that the issue arises every time there is a change to military ethos and discipline. However, I assure the House that we do not believe that that is so. Similar arguments could have been put forward in 1996 over Armed Forces discipline when the noble Earl, Lord Howe, commented on the test of the discipline system for what we must remember are volunteer Armed Forces in a free society. He said that it was to get the balance right between rights and duties. The noble Earl warned then against complacency and urged the need for a constant watch on discipline.

The noble Earl also said at the time that the absence of the right of appeal against courts martial sentences was an unnecessary limitation on the rights of servicemen and women. That is the view we take as to the need for the present changes. The view was supported by the Front Bench opposite in 1996.

I am sure that, as has been the case with previous measures of this nature, the Bill will result in detailed thought as to how we can deal with the interesting issues which have been brought up this afternoon and how much further we can improve the system of administering discipline. Yes, it is part of the Government's human rights agenda, but it is no part of the Government's human rights agenda to undermine Armed Forces discipline. The Government fully recognise that discipline is vital in the pursuance not only of our defence policy but ultimately of our foreign policy.

Yet underpinning our consideration of what needs to be done has been an overriding concern and awareness which has run like a thread throughout our debate today. As the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, the Armed Forces are not just another job. They have a unique role, a point made passionately by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The men and women who serve in them have unique responsibilities. We expect a great

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deal of them. Your Lordships know as well as I do how admirably they fulfil those expectations. The ability to maintain effective discipline is a vital ingredient in our Armed Forces' success. It is the accumulation of generations of hard-won experience. I can assure your Lordships that this Government will not cast that legacy aside.

I commend the Bill to the House and am confident that it will help to preserve that which all noble Lords hold dear. I ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, would she deal with one point which was brought up during the debate? It concerns the provision in Clause 18 of the Bill not only for an accused to have recourse to appeal to the court, but to have 21 days in which to do it. Does the Minister agree that that is a long period? Three weeks with that hanging around is bound to affect the authority of the commanding officer.

Specifically, will the noble Baroness undertake to examine that closely when we come to the Committee stage of the Bill?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I undertake to look closely at all the points raised by noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords this afternoon. The noble Lord is quite right, the clause imposes a time limit of 21 days. As I said in relation to other time limits, we do not want to run up to that limit; of course we want the matter dealt with as expeditiously as possible. I shall certainly look at the point.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 (Revocation) Order 1999

5.33 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 (Revocation) Order 1999, laid before the House on 20th October, be annulled (S.I. 1999/2863).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in recent months, not least during the debate on the loyal Address, there have been many references to the intermediate or new House of Lords. While the theoretical constitution of the House may be different, its role remains the same--to give advice to the Government, to review the Government's actions, and, if necessary, call on them to account for those actions. It is the last function upon which today's debate concentrates.

For many years now, my family business has existed by courtesy of the Post Office, so it is hardly surprising that it is one of my major interests. When, shortly after the election, Mrs Beckett, who was then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced yet another review of its workings and its relationship with

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government, my ears pricked up. So did the ears of others. I was asked to write an article on what I would like to see the review produce.

I shall not weary the House today with my proposals. There will be plenty of time for that during the course of the Bill, if we ever get it. The story I am about to relate makes me suspicious.

The review eventually got under way--rather slowly, I thought--in early July this year, almost two years later. It resulted in a White Paper and a Statement in both Houses. One of its surprises is found on pages 19 to 21 of the White Paper, Cmd. 4340, and concerns the statutory Post Office monopoly for letters priced at under £1. That was set as long ago as 1981 by means of the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order, SI 1981/1483, following on the last Post Office Act of the same year.

As the White Paper fairly reveals, up to now this monopoly has been defended as necessary to enable the Post Office to benefit from economies of scope and scale and, therefore, to provide a universal service at a uniform tariff without direct public subsidy. The White Paper states:

    "However, there is growing evidence from studies carried out in Europe for the European Commission that, contrary to long-held assumptions, there may be considerable scope for introducing greater competition in postal services without undermining these essential services".

The White Paper goes on to explain why in paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. To be fair, it gives a most convincing argument which time does not allow me to repeat, though no doubt other noble Lords may be tempted.

Having thus attacked the long-standing defence of the monopoly, pages 20 and 21 of the White Paper state:

    "The Government's judgement is that a reduction of the monopoly is entirely compatible with the continuation of essential services; and that service levels will not only be maintained but enhanced by the introduction of greater competition to the postal sector. The Government has rejected the immediate abolition of the monopoly. It believes that the best results for consumers, including the protection of the Universal Service Obligation ... can be achieved if the Post Office is given time to respond to changes in market conditions. Liberalisation will therefore be phased. As a first step, the Government is halving the monopoly from £1 to 50p or, expressed in weight, 150 grams. So, if an item of mail is priced above 50p or weighs over 150 grams it will not be subject to the monopoly and can be delivered by any operator. It is anticipated that this reduction will not have any significant impact on the profitable delivery of USO [Universal Service Obligation] services by the Post Office. An order under section 69 of the British Telecommunications Act 1981 has been laid and, with Parliamentary approval, this reduction in the monopoly will take effect from 1 April 2000".

Indeed, it had. On 6th July this year, SI 1999/1933 was made; it was laid before Parliament on 8th July. Its relevant passage reads:

    "The postal privilege"--

that is the letter monopoly--

    "is hereby suspended until the end of the year 2006 in relation to the conveyance of a letter which either

    (a) is conveyed in consideration of a payment of more than 50 pence made by or on behalf of the person for whom it is conveyed; or

    (b) weighs more than 150 grams".

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It was to come into force on 1st April 2000 and, in due course, sailed unremarked through the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

All well and good. The Government had acted fast and lived up to their intentions. But--and this is the important point--those intentions in parliamentary time at least were only to last for about five minutes flat: that is, until 18th October.

Imagine my amazement when I discovered that the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 (Revocation) Order 1999--the subject of my Prayer this evening--had been made on 19th October and was coming into force on 1st December. Noble Lords who have read it--it is about as terse as a statutory instrument can be--will see that it states baldly:

    "The Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 is hereby revoked";

in other words, as the explanatory note says--incidentally, in almost twice as many words--

    "This Order revokes the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 which would have suspended, with effect from 1st April 2000, the exclusive privilege of the Post Office with respect to the conveyance of letters in the case of letters costing more than 50p or weighing more than 150 grams. Consequently it preserves the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1981 (as amended by the Postal Services Regulations 1999 (S.I. 1999/2107)) which suspends the privilege until the end of the year 2006 for letters weighing not less than 350 grams or costing not less than £1 so permitting persons other than the Post Office to convey such letters".

In short, it ain't going to happen; it is a government U-turn. In a word, why? To the best of my knowledge, no explanation has ever been given to either House of Parliament. It cannot be that the order was technically deficient; otherwise, an amending order would have been laid. This happens all the time. I see these instruments in my work on the Joint Committee on a fairly regular basis. The only explanation is that the Secretary of State had been got at over the Summer Recess.

It is true that the DTI now has its third Secretary of State since the general election. Mr Byers may have been self-activating, but I doubt it. It is much more likely that he has caved in to someone, or perhaps some body. Was it the Post Office board, a group of Back Benchers, the Labour Party conference, or the union representing Post Office workers?

As I said when I opened, this House has a duty to call the Government to account for their actions. All the Minister has to do this evening is answer the question: who was it? Or, pace the comments of the Solicitor-General earlier today, who knows what the new House will decide to do at the end of the debate. I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999 (Revocation) Order 1999, laid before the House on 20th October, be annulled (S.I. 1999/2863).--(Lord Skelmersdale.)

5.45 p.m.

Lord Newby: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for moving this Motion. We on

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these Benches have possibly two reasons for welcoming the introduction of this statutory instrument. The first is a matter of principle. We have regularly argued during the passage of legislation through your Lordships' House that the Government are unduly inflexible when faced with strong and compelling arguments in the opposite direction to that in which the legislation is justified. We are very pleased that in this very unusual case the Government have listened to the arguments, found them compelling and changed their mind.

We are slightly less pleased to find that the compelling arguments are put primarily by the Communication Workers Union. While we do not disagree with them, this is a case of a government bowing to pressure from outside when very often, faced with similarly compelling arguments within the House, they find it impossible to move. We hope that the flexibility that the Government have found, jolted very substantially by the Communication Workers Union, now extends more generally to the pursuit of their business and that when in future we on these Benches make compelling arguments they will be dealt with and responded to positively.

My next point has to do with the substance of the matter. Were the Government right to make the change? On balance we believe that they were. The Government have argued that there should be careful and phased liberalisation of the monopoly. Since 1981 there has been a careful and phased liberalisation by way of inflation. The extent of the monopoly in real terms has fallen by more than 50 per cent over the period. Therefore, each year little by little the monopoly has been undermined. The question is whether at this stage, given all the changes that are planned for the Post Office, it is sensible to have such a large reduction in one go.

We have studied the report of the Select Committee. We accept its argument that, just at the point when the Government are due to set up a postal services commission, it seems rather strange to pre-empt the decision of that body by taking such a major step, particularly given the potentially wider ramifications than simply the flow of revenue into the postal system.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to the universal service obligation. I suspect that we shall hear much more about that in the coming months as we debate the Bill. Any change to any aspect of Post Office administration and charges or its monopoly will give rise to a key issue. It is sensible that when established the postal services commission should look at that as part of its consideration of the issue. For those two reasons we welcome the statutory instrument, albeit we slightly raise our eyebrows at the way it has been introduced.

I put just one question to the Minister. When might we expect the establishment of the postal services commission and appointments to it?

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