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Lord Skelmersdale: I rather suspect, from the utterances we have had from the Government Front Bench this afternoon, that the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, will find it better to travel in hope than to arrive. However, we shall see.
The noble Lord is absolutely right: £250 million in postage revenue is a very important source of money to the Post Office. The PPA already has the option of sending its publications in bulk to Germany, Holland, Italy or wherever, and having them sent back to individual addresses in this country. Or, indeed, it could be even braver if it wanted to be and have its magazines printed abroad in, for instance, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong or where have you--perhaps not Hong Kong, where wages are rather higher than in the other two countries I mentioned--and sent to individual British addresses from there.
But there is another reason that this amendment should be considered with a modicum of favour. The Minister referred earlier--it may have been the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh--to a level playing field. The commission wants to be assured that the British Post Office is operating on a level playing field with its competitors. If anything can be done in terms of efficiency and economy and a spur can be given by the commission as a result of its investigations of post offices in other member states or indeed elsewhere in the universal postal union, that should certainly happen. I am rather worried that the Minister will say that collecting information about the provision of these services could include provision about efficiency and economy, but the provision does not say the commission has to. It can ignore that totally. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howie, that that would be a great mistake.
Viscount Goschen: I rise to support the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Howie. As ever, I was entirely swayed by his arguments. He is right that this is a modest but important amendment. It is difficult to understand how it could actually be argued against. There can be only two arguments. One is that it is bad to collect comparative information, so it should not be done, or it is a waste of time and therefore the provision is over-prescriptive. I do not believe that it is either. I think that it would be very difficult for the commission to do its job without performing this specific function. We should make sure that the commission is fully aware by a statutory provision of how important it is to ensure a level playing field and to look at comparative measures of how other operators are performing. It needs to do that in order to perform its job. Placing that
Baroness Miller of Hendon: The Minister will not be surprised to know that I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howie. It is grouped with my two amendments, Amendments Nos. 38 and 39, which have practically the same purpose. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Howie, described his amendment as modest. I did not withdraw my amendments and instead left them on the Marshalled List because I thought that they were slightly wider than modest. Perhaps the different characteristics of the noble Lord, Lord Howie, and myself mean that I do not want to have amendments which are quite so modest. However, I want him to know that I support his amendment, although believing that it needs to go a little further.
While on my feet, I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 which are in the same group. In subsection (4) the commission is told to make the information available to the council and in subsection (5) it is told to make the information available to the Secretary of State. However, the information that it is instructed to gather under subsection (1)(a) and (b) is somewhat limited in scope and in my view somewhat limited in use. The additional requirement is that the commission shall in effect collate and analyse the information so that a useful, indeed a vital, comparison of postal service providers can be made; otherwise, I do not know the purpose of going to all this trouble. It would be a comparison regarded as impartial and distinct from any claims made in advertising or in any application for a new licence by any provider. I really do not believe that any further explanation of Amendment No. 38 is necessary. I simply hope that the Government will regard it as a constructive improvement to the Bill.
Amendment No. 39 is equally short and simple. It is intended to remedy an omission from Clause 45. The clause requires the commission to make an annual report to the Secretary of State. Subsection (2) lists the matters which specifically the annual report must contain. By implication the report can of course also contain anything else that the commission decides at its discretion to include. In addition to the specific items listed in the subsection, there is a sweep-up paragraph (e) authorising the Secretary of State to specify other matters to be included in the report.
What is missing from this wide range of subjects, which I assume the Government in their wisdom intended to be comprehensive, is a report on the information that is gathered under Clause 44(1)(a), which requires the commission to collate information about the operation of postal services. As I pointed out in relation to the amendment I proposed to that clause, the commission reports on the information it has gathered to the Secretary of State. There is nowhere a
Lord Sharman: We seem to have a competition going on this evening in terms of who can be the most diffident and who can be the most modest, which is an encouraging development in this Chamber. I want to make a comment on this matter because I think that these amendments seek to raise the issue of value for money. Value for money is more than just economy and efficiency. It includes effectiveness as well. In that respect we need to look at the amendments in a broader sense. Value for money is what should be concerning us rather than just economy and efficiency. I think that it is a broader issue but it is relevant. I should also say that I am not sure that putting all that information into the public domain is the best thing. That is what the management of the corporation ought to be about. The management should not be concerned with it and the commission should be concerned about it, but I am not sure that the public at large would be able to interpret it.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The underlying purpose of these amendments is to require the commission to compare the efficiency and economy of licence holders with other postal operators, most probably by using "benchmarking" which, as discussed in the other place, is a way of carrying out comparative analysis. In principle I see nothing wrong with that. Benchmarking is a valuable business and regulatory tool. I would imagine that the Post Office and the commission will both use if for their own purposes. I am sure that it would be useful for the commission in carrying out its functions under Clause 5(3) on promoting the efficiency and economy of postal operators and in deciding upon any price control mechanism.
However, the effect of these amendments would be to create a very specific duty. They would fetter the discretion of the commission. There is a distinction to be made here between being prescriptive about the duties of the commission and being prescriptive about the way they are carried out. For that reason the wording has been kept more general.
Amendment No. 38 specifies that the commission should carry out such a comparison on an annual basis. I do not think it very helpful to set an arbitrary timescale. We have avoided doing so elsewhere with respect to the commission's and the council's functions as, again, we do not want to fetter their discretion.
Lord Howie of Troon: I am a little disappointed with the Minister's reply because I expected him to turn me down completely. He has now unhinged me. I do not know quite what to say next, but I shall try to think of something while the Committee waits patiently!
I was extremely pleased by the support I received from those on the other side of the Committee. I know all three of them, sensible people as they are. They have gone up in my estimation yet again. On the Liberal Democrat intervention, I was under the impression that value for money was embraced by efficiency and economy, but perhaps I am wrong. I am not an economist. I am grateful for the Minister's reply, although it has shaken me a little. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.