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HMSO: Future

5.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, I beg leave to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in another place about the Government's plans for the future of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and how these might affect Parliament. The Statement is as follows:

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    "The Government are sure that the interests of HMSO, its customers, its staff, the taxpayer and Parliament will best be served by privatisation along the lines that I have set out. But uncertainty, particularly for staff, necessarily accompanies a change of this sort. The Government will aim to complete the sale by summer next year, but subject always to meeting the requirements of Parliament as a pre-requisite".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Having repeated the Statement, I should like to add that I have seen the report published today from the Offices Committee of your Lordships' House. In that report, the committee draws attention to a number of requirements which it would regard as essential if a privatised HMSO were to continue to meet the needs of the House for the printing and publishing of parliamentary papers. We shall, of course, consider those points with care. But I have no reason to think that they cannot be met.

My noble friend the Lord Privy Seal intends to seek an early opportunity for a debate on all those issues. The points raised on that occasion will give us a further opportunity to ensure that your Lordships' concerns can be taken fully into account. An official of the House is being involved as an observer at every stage in the preparation for privatisation to ensure that the needs of this House are fully understood.

In due course, the Offices Committee will be invited to consider the detailed arrangements for a contractual relationship between the House and a privatised Stationery Office. It will be for the committee and, ultimately, your Lordships, to judge whether those arrangements are satisfactory. I am convinced that a comprehensive contractual package can be assembled which will take full account of the needs of Parliament. Indeed, I hope that the advantages of privatisation will make it possible to secure further reductions in real terms in the price of parliamentary papers, an objective which I know is dear to the hearts of many of your Lordships.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in another place. However, I must say at the outset that I am in some difficulty. I say that because normally when such a Statement is repeated I have a copy of it in front of me. I believe that I have a copy of the statement that was actually made in another place, but I do not have a full copy of the statement that the Minister just made; indeed, there are chunks of it towards the end that I have heard for the very first time. I should like to know whether that falls within the normal rules of your Lordships' House. If it does not, I must say that I am distinctly unhappy about the situation.

I should say immediately to the Minister that I can see the difficulty. On this particular occasion, a Statement which was suitable for the other place is not quite suitable for your Lordships' House. However, that does not mean that the principal Opposition spokesman

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should not have a full copy of such a Statement to enable him to have a look at it beforehand. I have to register the issue. It is not a personal matter between myself and the Minister; it is a matter of which I believe we ought to take note.

As I said, I believe that the Statement is directed in the first place towards the other place. However, I take it for granted that they can take care of themselves and, indeed, will no doubt do so when they debate the matter. Nevertheless, we have our own interests and I shall refer to them in due course, because they may not necessarily be identical to the interests of honourable and right honourable Members in another place.

I suppose the general question which we ought to start with, and which, in my judgment the Statement does not answer, is: what is the point of all this? Some general remarks are made in the Statement which the Minister repeated, but they hardly comprise a serious analysis of the whole issue. For example, the Statement says that,

    "the business will benefit from access to wider markets".

Can I see the evidence which supports that proposition? I am not very clear as to exactly what is the Office of the Duchy of Lancaster, but has it undertaken studies of such matters and can it demonstrate that claim?

More puzzling is the sentence in the Statement which says:

    "Customers like Parliament will benefit from an accountable, commercially enforceable relationship with a supplier well positioned to reduce costs".

Is that not what we have at present? Indeed, is it not precisely the position of HMSO? In other words, if we have to be more commercially minded, why can that not take place within the public sector?

In that connection, I must ask more specifically: just what is to be sold? What are the assets? We are discussing a multifarious business which is engaged in printing and publishing. Moreover, I have found out--as I have only recently discovered that I am the Opposition spokesman on Duchy of Lancaster matters--that the Stationery Office engages in activities like photocopying, which I gather is good business, and, indeed, in various other tasks of that nature.

Apart from some equipment and stock, surely HMSO's main asset is the actual contract that it has with Parliament, or more generally with the public sector. In what sense is that a saleable asset? In that connection, I ask the Minister whether it is possible to tell your Lordships in the broadest possible terms--I do not need a precise figure--how much money we are talking about here? Are we talking in terms of millions, tens of millions or hundreds of millions of pounds? I do not wish to prejudice the negotiations with a possible buyer but I would still like to know what I am talking about before proceeding any further. This is a field in which I am interested but I have no idea of the sum of money that is involved. If someone were to ask me how much I thought the Government were talking about I would have to say that I had not the faintest idea. It would help noble Lords if the Minister could at least give us some guidance on that matter.

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In that connection I note that an information pack will be placed in the Library. I have been assured that it is already in the Library of your Lordships' House but it is being indexed and therefore it is buried downstairs. I hope that by tomorrow plenty of copies of the information pack will be available to your Lordships, because if we are to proceed to examine this matter in any detail that is the least that we shall need.

The Statement refers to a shortlist of bidders that will be published. I hope I express the interest of all your Lordships when I ask again whether we shall have an opportunity to debate that shortlist and to express an opinion on the people in it. The Statement states that the buyer must be "fully acceptable to Parliament". I hope I am not mistaken, at least for the moment, in assuming that your Lordships' House is still part of Parliament and therefore that the buyer must be fully acceptable to your Lordships' House as well as to another place. I wish to emphasise--I hope the Minister agrees with this--that in my judgment this is a parliamentary matter and not a government matter. Will we be assured, therefore, that acceptability will be based on a free vote in which your Lordships will be free to express their opinions as they wish and believe in the interests of your Lordships' House, or will there be the usual process whereby the Government decide that they must place themselves on the line and there will be a heavy Whip and we shall see some of our noble friends whom we never see at any other time, trooping in in order to vote on the matter? I hope that will not be the case, because where the future of your Lordships' House is placed in debate--it is in a subject of public debate--a matter of this kind ought not to be dealt with on a three-line Government Whip.

I was puzzled as regards the reference made by the noble Baroness to the Offices Committee. Will the noble Baroness assure me that where she referred to the Offices Committee she meant the House of Lords Offices Committee on all occasions? I also note the reference to a debate, which we all welcome. Am I correct in assuming that this debate will take place at an early date before the ultimate buyer, or even the shortlist, is known because we need to debate the actual subject in the near future? I have been told that the other place will debate this subject next week. I believe there is little possibility that we could do that but I would certainly be unhappy if, with the other place having debated the matter, our debate took place at a much later date, as we have a contribution to make on our own behalf.

When we know the ultimate buyer, will we also then have a debate on whether we believe the safeguards have been met? I sit on the Offices Committee--that is why I check that that is the committee we have in mind--which agreed yesterday in its report that it should not be interpreted to mean that because the safeguards were met the committee then fully accepted that we should proceed with privatisation. In other words, we were at some pains to distinguish the question of privatisation from that of whether the safeguards are met. That is related to a matter which, again, I found surprising--your Lordships ought to allow me to emphasise this--and that is that the privatisation does

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not require legislation. When this matter first came up I was somewhat taken aback to discover that the Government can simply sell this business. Your Lordships ought to know that. There is the consideration that, no matter what we say, the Government can simply shrug and say, "We are selling it". I doubt whether they would do that if we had reservations, but I understand that the legal, statutory position is that they can do so.

I turn for a moment to the matter of copyright. It is not a matter I wish to dwell on today but it is a matter of some importance. It has been a concern not merely of mine but of many people interested in Crown and parliamentary copyright that Government and Parliament have been trying to earn too much from their ownership of copyright and therefore a great many public documents are priced so high that if an ordinary member of the public wished to obtain such documents he would find them extremely expensive to purchase. Taking a view of democracy, it seems to me an absurd state of affairs that the public at large should find it expensive to have access to documents on the laws of the land. Given our belief in open democratic government, I hope that copyright will be used from now on in a benign way in order that ordinary people will not find that the price of such documents is a deterrent to buying them. I am not suggesting that everyone wishes to buy Acts of Parliament. We shall return to that matter on another occasion, but I hope that in future copyright will be interpreted in an extremely generous way.

I return to the reason why this measure has been taken. Can I be told whether there has been any study of the performance of HMSO as regards your Lordships' House? Has there been any work done on that at all? Speaking for myself, my connection with HMSO is via the Printed Paper Office. Again speaking for myself, I have found the service absolutely first class. How many noble Lords have complained about HMSO? What sort of complaints have they made, or are most noble Lords, like me, quite bewildered by the whole of this business? There is an absolutely fascinating letter by Plantagenet Somerset Fry in today's Financial Times. He was HMSO first editor of books from 1975 to 1980. He reminds us that HMSO will be 210 years old next year; it is one of our oldest institutions. It was established to deal with certain problems in connection with corruption in the publishing of government documents and--if I may quote the precise words of the letter in the Financial Times--

    "to secure economy in government expenditure on printing and stationery".

What I find most paradoxical of all is that the two great figures involved originally with the Stationery Office were Pitt the Younger and Edmund Burke. It is strange that I from these Benches should be calling up the shades of those two great men as opposed to the Conservative Party, which one might have thought would have taken some account of their sensitivities

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though they lie in their graves. My view is that this whole measure is nonsensical and I truly wish that Parliament's time was not being wasted with it.

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