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Lord Aldington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us are glad to hear his relatively commendatory words about Sir John Banham and his expression of the Government's gratitude to him for conducting a task that was practically impossible; namely, to please the Government and at the same time please the many citizens of the country whom he was rightly required to consult? Is it not the case that Sir John did a remarkable job in a short time with great thoroughness and that more than 90 per cent. of his recommendations have been accepted?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Sir John undertook a difficult task and he performed it well. As I indicated, in relation to those recommendations that have been announced, my right honourable friend has agreed broadly with the commission's recommendations.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the commission has recommended the status quo in a few of the largest non-metropolitan towns and districts but has recommended unitary status in other similarly sized towns. The Government believe that there should be a reasonable level of coherence. That is why they wish to establish a newly constituted commission with new guidance to look at the case for unitary status in a short list of districts. That was announced on 2nd March.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, bearing in mind the role of the Department of the Environment in all this, will my noble friend confirm or deny the suggestion which is going around Whitehall that the nets outside that building have been put there to catch any Minister who may be tempted to jump out?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I indicated that the commission has recommended the status quo for a few of the largest districts among the non-metropolitan areas but has recommended unitary status for other towns of very similar size. We believe that the commission should have an opportunity to re-examine that in order to assess the coherence; that is, the similarity.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is the fourth time since, and including, the Heath Government that local government has been disrupted by Conservative governments? Local government has suffered severely from that. If the Government get it right this time, will they, for God's sake, leave it to settle down and get on with doing the job?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I understand the frustration of the noble Lord and many other noble Lords in this House. We obviously need to make certain that local government is efficient and that it delivers in the most effective way the services which people in the localities require.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, and in particular the reference to no decision having yet been made. That is not what was told to the three newsagents of Kirriemuir by the local area supervisor. Is the Minister aware that in 1989-90, the Post Office made £116 million and in 1993-94 it made £306 million? Is he aware also that the Post Office is a public service and that commercial considerations in country areas surely cannot require the price of delivering newspapers, which is an extremely essential service, to double or perhaps even treble in the near future? Have the Government inflicted that amount of inflation on this country?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am glad to know that the Questions tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, are stimulated by his newsagents in Kirriemuir. Prices have been held steady for seven years. It is wrong for one part of the Royal Mail to carry out works which are not part of the monopoly and which are subsidised by services which are part of the monopoly. Therefore, it is quite right that charges should be reviewed periodically. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, refers to "double" or "treble". As I told him in my original Answer, no decision has been taken.
Lord Molloy: My Lords, will the noble Earl bear in mind the remarkable role which the free press plays in this country? Should not the Government be rather apprehensive about anything which may be interpreted as even a minor financial threat to that free press?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we have a remarkable free press in this country, but the prices that are charged for the delivery of the service is a matter for the Post Office.
Lord Peston: My Lords, am I right in thinking that the noble Earl is saying that this is a matter solely for the Post Office and is nothing at all to do with the Government, but that he happens to know that the Post Office has not yet made up its mind? Is he saying that it is nothing to do with the Government but they know what is going on?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, must not try to bowl me fast balls like that. I had a great temptation to answer the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, by saying that this is a commercial matter for the Post Office. That was the answer which my noble friend Lord Denham used to give many years ago when he was asked questions about the Post Office. But in this case, I felt that this would be a discourtesy and so I gave a fuller answer. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Peston, would not chivy me for my courtesy in giving that full Answer.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I am delighted with the noble Earl's reply. I forgot to say how much I echo his thoughts about our press. I am very much with him on that. If the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asks the Question
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, has at heart the interests of the House and will not ask questions of Ministers to which it is not the responsibility of Ministers to reply. I am sure that he will address his questions to the body which is competent to answer them; namely, the Royal Mail.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Minister has treated this Question rather lightly. The three newsagents of Kirriemuir are merely an illustration of what is happening in country areas. Will the noble Earl admit that Rowland Hill's spirit is not entirely dead? The Post Office has a public duty to provide a service which does not pay because it balances out throughout the country. I should have thought that even this Government would adhere to that principle.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, feels that I am treating this matter lightly. I thought that I was treating it seriously because I gave him a more comprehensive reply than I might otherwise have done. But the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, is at fault, which is unusual, because the Post Office has a monopoly for delivering letters where the postage is less than £1. The delivery of newsagents' materials is not subject to a monopoly. It may well be that those who could supply that service would complain if the Post Office provided the service at a subsidised rate.
Lord Colnbrook: My Lords, I beg to present a petition from the Friends of the Royal County of Berkshire which prays that this House, taking due note that a petition expressing opposition to the Local Government Commission's recommendations and signed by many people in Berkshire has been presented in another place by Sir Gerard Vaughan, do reject those recommendations and vote down any order which may be laid to implement them or any similar proposals.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Ullswater has already mentioned, he will at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on English local government reorganisation.
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