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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, my noble friend reminds me of wider issues. For many years the parties opposite appeared to believe firmly in the public sector. Over the past 17 years we have privatised many companies, much to the disgust of the parties
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, exactly why do the Government seek to privatise the administration of child benefit? It cannot be to save money, because child benefit is the cheapest of all benefits to administer. The cost of administration is now only 2p. in the pound. It is hard to believe that anyone in the private sector can emulate that. Clearly, there is a hidden agenda--perhaps it is not well hidden--for the breaking up of the Civil Service. Is this also a back-door method of closing rural post offices because they will lose important chunks of business?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am delighted by the last part of the Question put by the noble Baroness. This matter was dealt with in the press release which the noble Earl leaked to the world on Friday. Rural post offices are already in the private sector. The proposals that we have made with the Benefits Agency and Post Office Counters Ltd. in order to pay benefits by the plastic card method reinforce our commitment to keeping open rural post offices. Further, the administration of child benefit at Washington has absolutely nothing to do with the payment of child benefit at rural post offices. It is a pity that the noble Baroness does not recognise that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, what mothers will get is a card which looks very much like the one I have in my hand. That card will enable them to go along to any post office or sub-post office the length and breadth of this country and receive the child benefit to which they are entitled. I am appalled that the noble Baroness should be raising scares like this.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that one of the front-running contenders for the contract for the administration of child benefit is a company called EDS which previously ran the Child Support Agency payments and is currently before the courts in Florida for the way in which it has handled affairs over there? Can the noble Lord assure the House that those facts will be taken into consideration before any decision is made?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the announcement seeking expressions of interest was put out only on Friday. I do not have a clue who will respond to it. I can neither confirm nor deny what the noble Baroness said because no one has yet responded.
Earl Russell: My Lords, instead of generally philosophising about the private sector, will the Minister address the question I asked in my first supplementary about the monopoly provider? Does he recall on Second Reading of the Water Bill the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, saying that he was in favour of a private monopoly if it could be done without injuring the consumer? Has it been?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as far as concerns child benefit, what will be asked of any company which is invited to do that work will be that it pays the right benefit to the right person at the right time. We shall be monitoring that carefully. We shall lay down the standards. We will ensure, as we all do when we employ the private sector to do whatever it is, that the project is delivered at our specification and at our price.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we do not believe that we should impose economic sanctions on Burma. Our trade with Burma is negligible and such a measure is unlikely to be effective. There is also little international support for sanctions.
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, since this Question was put on the Order Paper has not a further request for sanctions come from Burma itself in the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the only really elected party in Burma, who should be in government at this time? In those circumstances is there not a moral duty on the Government at least to consider the
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, first, we maintain close contact with all the pro-democracy groups, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Our ambassador in Burma meets her regularly. Not only is the UK/Burma trade negligible, we do not wish to see a country cut off totally, because then we do not have a critical dialogue. The DTI does not intend to provide financial support for any trade missions to Burma during the course of this year. Any future requests for such assistance will be assessed most carefully against the circumstances obtaining at that time, including the political and human rights position in Burma. I hope that it is now clear where we stand on the trade issue.
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, my noble friend is right. He may recall that when answering a recent question on Burma I said exactly that. We shall be raising the issue of Burma this week at the ASEAN meetings which are to be held in Jakarta, because it is for the ASEANs too to use their influence with the SLORC. That is the critical way that dialogue should be pursued.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, given the lack of success of critical dialogue so far with Burma, I am a little surprised by the Minister's confidence that that will have any impact in future. Will she tell the House why a DTI official was in Burma last month investigating possible business opportunities there on the very day that her right honourable friend Mr. Hanley in another place said that trade missions to Burma had been cancelled?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Baroness's question, but I shall find out because I, too, wish to know. Perhaps I may underline that we are not providing any financial support for any further trade missions to Burma. That is clear. We may have received requests in the past. We cannot say for evermore that we shall not support them, but each and every one will be assessed carefully, especially against the political and human rights situation in Burma. No one wishes more than the Government to see that the rightly democratically elected government are in power in Burma. We have to do everything that we possibly can to ensure that a dialogue begins with the pro-democracy groups, in particular with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister seen the reports of the death of Mr. Nichols, the Danish honorary consul in Rangoon? Has she noted the protests which have been made not just by Denmark but by Australia, the USA and a number of other countries which have asked for a full inquiry into the circumstances of his death in custody? Will the UK join in that initiative?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, first, we were to the fore in getting the EU declaration sent on 5th July last which called on the SLORC to provide a full and satisfactory explanation of Mr. Nichols' death. We have not yet seen the full report. We were deeply sorry to hear of his death. He was not a fit man before he was put into prison, but the conditions there probably contributed towards an earlier death than would otherwise have occurred. I assure the noble Lord that we shall continue to make representations about detention. Although some 200 people have been released, 37 people are still detained. We shall continue to do all we can to see that they are released.
Lord Richard: My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether this matter has been raised at the Security Council? If so, who raised it? In informal discussions at the Security Council what view did other countries take of the matter?
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