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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, clearly the Government would like to see Consignia become a major international player. Consignia already has, through acquisition, entered into several overseas markets. Obviously, the company is in difficulty at present and in March it announced the first phase of its renewal plan to turn the company around. Once the UK market is further liberalisedobviously, the timing of that is a matter for PostcommConsignia will need to become more efficient and give better customer service. That is, of course, an essential requirement if it is to become an international player.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, were he to confirm that he regards the Post Office as part of the essential fabric of our societyI say the "Post Office" deliberately and not "Consignia"he would be speaking for all noble Lords and, indeed, for the country? Does he also agree that the precedent of the purchase by Enron of Wessex Water provided a sad example of the concerns that people would have were the Post Office to fall under the wrong control? If he agrees with that, will he also be prepared to agree that, whatever happens to the control of the Post Office and Consignia, the universal service obligation will be maintained?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, clearly the Post Office is part of the essential infrastructure of the country. Ministers made it very clear to the Post Office that, were there to be a merger, it would have to be in the public interest both in terms of the workforce and
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 21st March my noble friend Lady Blatch and I asked him whether there had been any negotiations between Consignia and a foreign company? His reply on that occasion was that he did not know of any. However, can he now say for the record whether, had he known then what he knows now, his answer would have been simply "yes"?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I believe that a number of questions were raised on that occasion, which remains vividly in my mind. I believe that the answer now is "Yes, there were merger discussions". However, as I explained then, I was not aware of those discussions at the time.
Earl Russell: My Lords, further to the Minister's answer to my noble friend Lord Razzall, can he say how far he believes that a serious competitive enterprise is compatible with the delivery of a universal service?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I believe that they are compatible. If one looks across Europe, one can see examples of where that takes place. I see no reason why, in liberalising the market, it should not be possible to maintain a universal service obligation, as has happened in other countries.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on 17th April the Minister for Sport wrote to 153 of sport's governing bodies, representing 90 sports, outlining the benefits of charitable status. The Government believe that those governing bodies should actively encourage their member clubs to apply to become registered charities. They will be contacting more than 100,000 local sports clubs to outline the possible benefits and to give details of a regional Sport England advice line that will shortly be established to assist clubs with the application process.
Baroness Billingham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very clear and helpful Answer. Does he agree that small sports clubs, covering sports such as tennis, bowls and cricket, in our villages and towns are incredibly important to our communities and that this recognition is long overdue? When I heard the
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am happy to join in the congratulations expressed to all those who have made this significant breakthrough in terms of support for sport. I believe we all recognise that the achievement of charitable status by community-based, amateur sports clubs will greatly help their often difficult finances. It will also help to nurture sport in the communityan objective which, I am sure, is shared by all Members of this House.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that all that glitters is not gold? Does he realise that becoming a charity costs the average amateur sports club between £3,000 and £5,000? Is he aware that the Scottish Charity Commissioners do not recognise the guidance given by the Charity Commission and that, as this is not a devolved matter, he should be able to answer for what happens in Scotland? Is he also aware that clubs would have to split profit-making activities, such as their bars and shops, away from the playing activities, but that that would be almost impossible for the average amateur sports club to do? Would it not be much easier to give a mandatory rate relief and call it a day?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the latter was an alternative strategy that was widely canvassed and it had some merit. However, I do not believe that one should underestimate the burden of administration and bureaucracy on clubs applying for that status because the offices of accountants, and so on, would be greatly needed.
Every attempt is being made to streamline the process and to make it far more sensitive to the needs of small organisations such as small sports clubs. Against that background, the advantage of the Charity Commission proposals is that, once the initial applicationI recognise that it would involve a costhad been received, the element of bureaucracy and additional costs would reduce over time. Therefore, there are advantages to sports clubs in those terms.
With regard to the Scottish dimension, we hope to see the same strategy being adopted in Scotland as in England and Wales. I do not believe that anyone would doubt that this is a signal step forward for sports clubs, and the Scots would do well to follow suit.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I believe that the applications of the sports clubs will be judged on their merits in terms of their community sports facilities. The educative role to which the noble Lord referred is a dimension of that. However, I believe we all recognise that this measure is meant to encourage the provision of sport in the community. It is meant to be a positive step, and the Charity Commission and all the sports bodies concerned with promoting the advance of sport in our society will take every step to facilitate this development. Therefore, I believe that I can give the noble Lord the assurance that he requires.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, conciliation officers do not facilitate the negotiation of compromise agreements referred to in Section 203(2)(f) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. However, if we extend the noble Lord's use of the term "compromise agreement" to refer to any "general release" agreements, then conciliation officers do facilitate the negotiation of conciliated settlements of proceedings under Section 203(2)(e) of that Act.
But ACAS policy is not to facilitate settlements under which the employee would be waiving his future employment rights. We are not aware that any such conciliated settlement has ever been facilitated. Indeed, the Government's view is that such an agreement would not fall within Section 203(2)(e) and would therefore be void and unenforceable.
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