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Lord Brett: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1. This is a consequential technical amendment to Clause 3. Clause 3 allows employment tribunals to increase or decrease an award by up to 25 per cent for unreasonable failure to comply with any relevant code of practice relating to workplace dispute resolution. Tribunals will be able to adjust awards under the jurisdictions set out in new Schedule A2. This schedule replicates the jurisdictions that are already listed in Schedule 3 to the Employment Act 2002. It covers the vast majority of the jurisdictions of claims accepted by employment tribunals.
Following the Third Reading of the Bill in this House, the Cross-border Railway Services (Working Time) Regulations 2008 came into force on 27 July. These regulations transpose a European directive on working conditions for railway workers on cross-border railway services and replace conditions previously covered by the working time directive.
Regulation 17 allows a worker to complain to an employment tribunal if his employer has refused to permit him to exercise rights under the regulations relating to rest or break periods. The regulations insert Regulation 17 into Schedule 3 to the Employment Act 2002 as a jurisdiction to which the adjustment of awards for non-completion of statutory procedure applies. Amendment No. 2 therefore makes a consequential amendment to add Regulation 17 to new Schedule A2 as a jurisdiction to which the new adjustment provisions will also apply after repeal of the existing provisions.
(a) may be supplied by, or with the authorisation of, the Secretary of State to an officer acting for the purposes of the Employment Agencies Act 1973 for any purpose relating to that Act; and
(b) may be used by an officer acting for the purposes of that Act for any purpose relating to that Act.
(a) after this section there is inserted (or pursuant to section 15(5A) of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998);
(b) after paragraph (iv) there is inserted or (v) to an officer acting for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 for any purpose relating to that Act;.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting (Lord Carter of Barnes): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2. I shall also speak to Amendment No. 4.
Amendment No. 2 addresses an issue raised in the Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forums report, which was published together with the Governments response in August. Once the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate has started an inspection, it is currently a criminal offence to disclose information obtained during that inspection. Inspectors therefore cannot inform Her Majestys Revenue and Customs, which enforces the national minimum wage, if they come across indicators of non-compliance with the minimum wage. This legal restriction on minimum wage officers being able to share information also means that they are not able to inform employment agency inspectors of details of non-compliant employers in order for inspectors to follow up possible non-compliance issues with the employment agency legislation.
Amendment No. 2 would remove these barriers to information-sharing between those who enforce the national minimum wage and those who enforce employment agency legislation. Amendment No. 4 provides for Amendment No. 2 to be commenced by order.
Lord Cotter: My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to refer to the national minimum wage, an issue covered by Amendment No. 2 and also by the Employment Bill. For my sins, I participated in the National Minimum Wage Bill in the other place, where we had one of the longest Committee sittings everover 24 hoursto discuss it at great length. It is good that the issue has been addressed again in the Employment Bill, and vital that compliance is achieved, as many of us will know from our contact with small businesses and those working in them. Usually we would be concerned about information being passed from one hand to the other, but on this occasion, in view of the great need to ensure that we tighten up on all the possible avenues for things to go wrong, we on these Benches support what has been put forward.
I wonder whether this could not be classified as a way of tracking down people. In that connection, were we in a different place, we might be wishing to track down Joe the Plumber, a case which has recently received a lot of publicity. I am not sure whether Joe was a mythical figure, but I welcome the fact that we will be able, through these means, to contact those not implementing the regulations as required. I urge the Government to pursue this matter and to continue to keep their eye on the implementation of the national minimum wage.
Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support of the national minimum wage. If I understood the gentle subtext of his point, he had an understandable nervousness, justifiable in my view, about extending data-sharing from one place to another. As he rightly pointed out, however, the objective is worthy, and he should be reassured that the safeguards are appropriate.
As the noble Lord will know, I am but a novice in this House, as the saying goes; but I do not believe that our jurisdiction extends yet to the United States of
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Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 3. This is a purely technical amendment. Under the commencement provisions in Clause 21, the provisions in Clauses 15 to 17 relating to employment agencies come into force either on 1 October 2008 or, if the Act obtains Royal Assent after that date, on 6 April 2009. As we are now discussing the Bill on 13 November 2008, the option to commence these clauses on 1 October can no longer be exercised. Amendment No. 3 therefore removes the option from the Bill.
Lord Carter of Barnes: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 5. This is the privilege amendment; noble Lords will forgive me if I rehearse the standard phrase. This amendment will remove the privilege amendment that was made when the Bill moved to another place. As noble Lords will be aware, the financial powers are restricted by the rights and privileges of the other place. As the Bill originated here and contains financial provisions, a privilege amendment was added to the Bill before its introduction into the other place to ensure that the financial privilege was not infringed. The amendment is purely technical and is necessary to remove the privilege amendment, which provided that nothing in the Bill should impose or vary any charge on the people or public funds.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend, James Purnell, in the other place. The Statement is as follows:
This Government created the Post Office card account in 2003. We announced that there would be a successor in 2006 and, based on the legal advice we received at the time, we put the contract out to tender. During that process, I have been unable to comment publicly or privately on this matter. I know that that has been frustrating to honourable Members, and I thank them for their understanding.
I know that all honourable Members would agree that the post office is at the heart of their community. It reaches the places and people that no one else does. That is why the Government have invested £2 billion in the Post Office since 1997; that is why we have for the first time set out access criteria to guarantee its reach; and that is why we will invest another £1.7 billion between now and 2011.
There is no doubt that the Post Office card account is central to maintaining a viable post office network. It not only generates a key part of the Post Offices income but brings with it vital footfall to individual sub-postmasters. Post Office card account customers have shown how much they value the service through the postcard campaign over the past few months, which has resulted in the large postbags of honourable Members.
It is also clear that maintaining a viable post office network is even more critical now than it was two years ago. The financial turbulence that began with the American banks, and the string of consequences which followed from it, have understandably made many people, particularly the most vulnerable in our society, more concerned about financial transactions. The Post Office, with its trusted brand, is seen as a safe, secure and reliable provider of services.
Now cannot be the time for the Government to do anything that would put the network at risk, particularly as post offices are often the only providers of banking services in both rural and deprived urban areas. The Post Office also has a proven track record of being able to move billions of pounds in cash safely around the country to ensure that the money is there when customers need it, and prides itself on meeting the needs of vulnerable customers. Sub-postmasters know their customers and provide a social service as well as a banking service.
To safeguard that service, we must help and support a viable post office network. For that reason, I can announce today that the Government have now decided to cancel the current unfinished procurement exercise and to award a new contract for the continuation of the Post Office card account directly to Post Office Ltd, within the terms of the relevant EC regulations. The contract will run initially from April 2010 to March 2015 with the possibility of an extension beyond that.
I recognise, of course, that this decision will disappoint those other bidders who had reached the final stage of the competition. I emphasise to the House, as I have done personally to the companies in question, that my decision does not reflect in any way on their ability to have provided the services in question. Nor is that a step that we have taken lightly. We recognise the importance of competition in the awarding of public contracts, but we have concluded that, in the current circumstances, protecting vulnerable groups by preserving a viable post office network justifies the award of a contract outside the competitive process. These are exceptional times, and we believe that this is a proper and proportionate response.
The Post Office considers that this decision, along with the extra money invested by the Government, will ensure a commercially viable future for the post offices that will be in place after the modernisation programme is complete.
I said that I would make a decision as soon as I could. I said that I would not rush the decision. I said that what was important was that we made the right decision. I believe that this is the right decision. This decision is good news for our constituents; it is good news for Post Office Ltd; and it is good news for sub-postmasters. I trust that it will be welcomed by honourable Members and I commend the Statement to the House.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating this long-overdue Statement made in another place literally seconds ago. He must be aware that it contains a fiasco with a happy ending. It has been awaited for a very long time. We were told by the Government that it would come before the Summer Recess. The Summer Recess came and went. Then we were told that it would come in October. October came and went. Then we were told that it had been held up by the Glenrothes by-election. That came and went. Now, at last, we have it.
It comes as a great relief to post offices and to the many peoplein particular, pensionerswhom they serve. Five thousand post offices have already gone since the Government started dithering on the matter. If the Post Office card account had not been re-awarded to post offices, there is no doubt that that would have led to an even greater number of closures. Indeed, we heard during Questions today of an estimate of one-third of post offices being lost by the time of the next election, had this happy event not occurred. So why does the Statement say:
What led the Government, kicking and screaming perhaps, to reach this conclusiona conclusion which the public and their MPs have been telling them for months? We have even had debates in your Lordships House, led not least by my noble friend Lady Byford, on this exact subject.
The Statement appears to blame this fiasco on lawyers. I suppose the Government have to blame someone when considering the future of the Post Office card account. Lawyers apparently said that it would have to go out to tender. This is indeed what happened. However, the Statement says that,
The announcement today is not permanent relief for post offices or their millions of customers. It amounts to an extension of the current arrangements for, in the first instance anyway, only five years. Did the lawyers advise on this, too? What is the significance of the relevant EC regulations in the Statement? Where do they fit into all this? How much has all this abortive tendering exercise cost?
Finally, BERR is at last grappling with the undoubted problems of the Post Office, and I congratulate the Secretary of State, who I am afraid is absent. I rather see his hand in much of the Statement, such as the bit about the Post Offices potential role in becoming even more involved with financial products, because the Post Office is seen as what the Statement quite rightly calls,
Exactly those thoughts were in a letter from the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister, which was leaked to the Guardian on Tuesday. I do not know whether the Minister heard the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, the other day, but he was here,
We all thought that at the very least he would have remained in the House this morning either to give or to hear the Governments Statement, given his new-found great interest in the future of the Post Office. Had he been at the Dispatch Box this morning, I, or perhaps my noble friend who is his opposite number, would have asked him whether he would institute a leak inquiry. I therefore ask the Minister whether there will be one.
In the past two years, the Governments handling of the Post Office has undermined its business and has caused painful turmoil and growing pain for postmasters and communities. Post offices, communities and many of the countrys most needy people will today breathe a sigh of relief that the Post Office card account has been re-awarded to the Post Office.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, we, too, on these Benches welcome this news. This is the week for memories of 11th hours. This decision seems to be another. Post offices, as noble Lords will know, have been closing all around the country and have been the subject of the most terrific campaigns by those on our Benches and the opposition Benches. It would have been disastrous for more post offices to close, particularly in this climate, and we are very pleased that the Government have understood this. We therefore welcome this decision, although it is very late in the day.
We all want to know whether this is a permanent change or whether we will have to come back to the House to see what is going to happen in a few years time. I will not reiterate the points that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has made, but I want to ask about the bidding process. Are the Government going to compensate bidders for the costs that have been incurred so far? We need to know. Will the Government take any other steps to ensure the viability of the Post Office network, which is so important to its future? All in all, this is a very happy day, so I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of both noble Lords who have spoken. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that this not a fiasco at all; it is about taking the right decision at the right time, particularly given the turbulent financial circumstances that we face. It is bizarre to suggest that we somehow deferred this decision until after the Glenrothes by-election. We were able to win it without this good news. Goodness knows what we would have done if we had announced this earlier.
The noble Lord said that we blamed this all on lawyers. That is not so. As the Secretary of State has made clear, being able to call a halt to the procurement process was key, and it was the advice of lawyers in the current circumstances to proceed without a competitive process. The previous advice, which was clearly based on the circumstances at the time, was that we needed to go out to competitive tender, which we did. The Secretary of State again requested advice, given the turbulence that we face and the importance of the Post Office brand and the stability that it is seen as providing in communities up and down the country. The advice came back that we did not, in these circumstances, have to proceed by competitive tender, which is why we have been able to take this decision. Tendering is obviously subject to EC regulation, but no requirements are imposed on us with regard to state aid under those provisions.
The noble Lord also asked about cost in all this. All the bidders who were left in the competition made proposals that were below current terms, and clearly the end result will mean a better deal for the taxpayer.
The noble Lord challenged the absence of my noble friend Lord Mandelson. I was not present when he answered a Question today about the future of the Post Office, but I did watch him on the screen and he seemed to be very clear about his and BERRs commitment to a viable and sustainable Post Office
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