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Mr. Alan Johnson: All three of the issues that we are debating and that were covered by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) have come about as a result of us listening to points that were raised at Committee stage in the House and in the other place. I am a little surprised that Conservative Members have tabled amendment (a). The Lords amendments that they seek to amend or to remove concern issues on which the Government have accepted changes to deal with particular concerns in the other place.
Amendment (a) would define the applicable turnover for determining the maximum fine under clause 30 as being for a period of not more than 12 months, and being either the period of the business year preceding the date
The amendment is overly prescriptive. We believe that it is technically deficient. I know that arguments about technical deficiency are always the bane of those on the Opposition Front Bench, but it makes no provision, for example, as to whether the relevant turnover is to be restricted to that of the business in the UK, or extended to cover worldwide turnover. Nor does it allow for the possibility of the detailed provisions to change over time.
Detailed provisions should be set out in an order made by the Secretary of State, as provided for in Lords amendments Nos 14 and 83. Such provisions would mirror the procedure adopted for the analogous provisions in the Competition Act 1998, and in the Utilities Bill.
The hon. Member for Buckingham made a valid point. He was concerned about whether a Government would use the power to impose burdensome fines on what could be the Post Office but could, in the future, be other universal service providers. That is the whole point about the licensing regime. The time to raise the issue, however, will be when the Secretary of State lays the order before the House by means of a statutory instrument. That, entirely properly, will give the House an opportunity to decide whether there are any problems relating to the fine.
Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made an entirely reasonable point. The Minister batted it off, saying, "We can discuss this later, when an order is laid". Given that my hon. Friend raised an important point, however, will the Minister assure me that there will be a period of open consultation, so that when the order is laid, the important accounting and equity issues raised by my hon. Friend can be properly discussed?
Mr. Johnson: We are talking about circumstances in which the terms of a licence have been breached. We were originally reluctant to put a cap on the fine imposed, but the forceful arguments advanced in another place convinced us that we should do so. That is entirely consistent with the Competition Act and with the Utilities Bill, and it is perfectly reasonable for us to say that we should not be burdened in the Bill by the form that the penalty should take.
Mr. Bercow: May I press the Minister on the question of the entitlement to fine on three years' turnover? This is a matter of grave concern. We do not dispute the principle that fines should be imposed, but business representatives out there believe that the scope for fining of three years' worth of turnover is excessive. How will the Minister reassure them?
The money obtained from any fine will not go into Treasury coffers; it will go to the Postal Services Commission. There will be no great imperative either to impose too many fines, or to insist that the fines are used to plug a gap in public finances. The money cannot be used in that way: it will go to the commission.
I do not think the amendment is necessary. I think the Opposition should quit while they are ahead. They made a good contribution which was accepted in another place, and I do not think we need amend that further.
Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 13 would require the Postal Services Commission to collect information enabling comparisons to be made between the efficiency and economy of different postal operators, whether in the United Kingdom or abroad. Unlike Lords amendment No. 13, the amendment leaves the commission with no discretion whatever.
We do not doubt that comparative information will be essential to the commission when it carries out many of its core duties. The point was raised by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) in Committee; we thought it sensible, and we have dealt with it. However, we do not think that we need to be prescriptive in the Bill. It is important to leave operational matters to those who are in the best position to make the decisions--in this case, the Postal Services Commission.
It is important that the commission should have some discretion in when it collects comparative information, because it may not always feel that a comparison is useful. The Government do not want to require the commission to do work--for which licence holders will pay--if the commission believes that that work is unnecessary.
The commission also does not have the power to require such information from unlicensed operators or from anyone except universal service providers in the United Kingdom. It certainly does not have the power to require information from operators abroad. However, an important aspect of comparisons, particularly of the services provided, will be to consider operations in the private sector and in countries such as Sweden. Removing the element of choice and insisting that the commission must do such work regardless of whether it is necessary would be a backward step and would not be acceptable.
We think that amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 14 is quite unnecessary. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Buckingham that transparency is essential and absolutely healthy. Indeed, ensuring that a universal service provider keeps separate accounts within its internal accounting systems for each of its reserved and non-reserved services is one of a number of important requirements of the European postal services directive. However, a requirement to report on how it has complied with that duty is already subsumed within the provisions of amendment No. 14, which will require the Postal Services Commission to include in its annual report a report on how it has complied with its obligations under the postal services directive. Highlighting that specific aspect of that duty would have no practical effect and would serve no useful purpose.
Now I come to the point that is dreaded by every speaker at the Dispatch Box, when it is necessary to correct an earlier statement. I am told that the money goes not to the commission, but to the Consolidated Fund. However, the commission has no financial incentive to fine companies. I hope that that fully clarifies the point.
Lords amendment: No. 20, in page 32, line 13, leave out (" 95(2)") and insert ("(Inviolability of mails)(2)")
Mr. Johnson: This group of amendments clarifies and improves the Bill's provisions protecting postal packets in the course of transmission by post. The amendments were made to honour a promise made in Committee that the Bill's provisions on interference with the mail and the connected provisions on inviolability and conditions of transit of postal packets would be clarified. The matter required careful consideration, and I regret that we were not able to complete our consideration of it in time to make the amendments on Report. However, we believe that, with the introduction of the amendments in the other place, the provisions have been clarified.