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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, at this time of seasonal good will to all men and women I am sure we all sympathise with the noble Baroness who has had the responsibility for bringing this dismal Statement to the House. We are talking about the privatisation of a good quality public service, intimately associated with Parliament, for entirely ideological reasons. On what conceivable grounds is HMSO to be privatised? What are the arguments? The points made by the Minister in another place were, to put it as politely as possible, extraordinarily unpersuasive.

I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, of what the all-party House of Commons Commission said on this matter when it expressed its concern,

I return to the question of safeguards to which we devoted a fair amount of time in the Offices Committee last evening. What happens if, following the negotiations, this House comes to the conclusion that the safeguards for which we are asking have not been met? The noble Baroness says that the aim must be to provide a solution which is fully acceptable to Parliament. What happens if it is not? What happens if the House decides as a result of the negotiations that the minimum safeguards laid down by the Offices Committee and contained in its report, which is available from the Printed Paper Office, have not been met? We deserve an answer to that question. Do this House and the other place have a right of veto in relation to their own interests, or will the Government simply ignore the views that are expressed?

In particular, what is the position concerning the price of many House publications, including Hansard? Many of us welcome the new supply and service agreement negotiated with the Stationery Office under which, as from 1st January next year, the price of Hansard and other publications will be reduced. What is the guarantee that a privatised organisation will accept that there shall be no increase in real terms in the charges paid by this House for those publications or that the House will be credited with a proportionate share of future savings arising from technological advances? Again, those points, made by the House of Commons Commission, are essential to this debate.

There is another question of some importance. Will the contract have to be submitted to competitive tendering under EU procurement rules? The Treasury apparently claims that it will not. What is the basis for that opinion? Has any lawyer with detailed knowledge of European law who comes from outside the public service confirmed that? If so, who was it? I am not asking for a reply today, but I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness will write telling us the answer to that question.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, says that the other place will discuss this matter next week. It is a matter of considerable urgency, affecting, as it does, the

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arrangements with HMSO which are central to our day-to-day work. Why can we not also have a debate next week and put off one of the days on the Bill dealing with criminal procedure? For other reasons too, that might be a sensible idea.

At present, HMSO is accountable directly to Ministers. If there is a failure to provide us with parliamentary papers on time a Minister is directly accountable. Who will be accountable to this House in future if privatisation is pushed through and serious problems arise thereafter?

This is a sad and silly proposal. I hope that it will be dropped. If it is not, Parliament has a responsibility to protect its rights and the public interest.

A noble Lord: My Lords--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is the convention of the House that I respond to points made by the Official Opposition and from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.

First, perhaps I may explain that when I came to the end of the Statement I said that I had come to the end and added an addendum. I do not know whether that is in contravention of the rules of the House, but I used the words, "having repeated the Statement." I continued with remarks that I thought would be helpful, given that I have only today read the report of the Offices Committee. I knew that it was directly relevant. I also said, and it is worth repeating, that it will be for the committee, and ultimately your Lordships, to judge whether the arrangements are satisfactory.

I was asked a direct question about what is to be sold. The whole of HMSO will be sold, except for a very small residual body. The sale will include office supplies, copiers, business systems, furniture, print and publishing. Parliamentary contracts are worth less than 10 per cent. of turnover. Therefore, the value cannot be guessed at this stage. It will depend on the trading position at the time of sale, and in any case it would not be right for me to state publicly at the Dispatch Box information which could prejudice the tendering process.

The cost of the service was raised. The contract will specify the arrangements for determination of prices. The new supply and service agreement which, as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said, was agreed yesterday, provides for an annual review of charges and prices which will set maximum prices to be charged to external customers. I expect future price movements to be downwards rather than upwards.

The short list will not be available until the spring. Bidders have to have time to decide whether to participate. Ultimately the House has to be content and ready to sign a contract for services which is separate from the contract of sale. That is an important point. The range and extent of those services can be determined by the House before the sale.

I am happy to respond to a point that was pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I am not aware of anything other than praise for the quality of HMSO. However, HMSO will find it increasingly difficult to maintain those services without increasing costs against a background of diminishing total sales. Privatisation is

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the remedy. The new owner will bring additional capital. That has to be good for the security of the people who work within HMSO.

I was asked whether the sale will require primary legislation. My understanding is that my right honourable friend has been advised that there is no need for primary legislation, but he is currently seeking advice about whether any secondary legislation may be needed.

Again, very rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made the point that we have concerns in this House which may be different from those in another place. That is why this House will be represented in, and will be party to, all negotiations that take place between now and the completion of any sale, and the Offices Committee will be kept informed. I am sorry if the information pack is not immediately available, but it will be.

I was asked how much money the sale will generate. It is too early to say. There is a need to analyse closely the trading position for the current year and the forecasts for future years. The price will be influenced by terms and conditions of contracts with customers and what proportion of HMSO's future work they cover. Figures so far bandied about in the press are likely to be way out. However, I am optimistic that value for money will be achieved. That is one of the aims of the exercise.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked whether we can debate the short list. At this moment I am not certain what the mechanisms will be for Members of this House to approve the contract terms. I know that officials of this House will be fully involved in the process. The Offices Committee will be fully involved and will certainly be party to the process. I cannot say at this time what mechanism the committee and the usual channels will determine to reflect the views of the whole House, but no doubt that will be a point that will be pressed in the debate that will follow.

Copyright was mentioned. That is another important point. Parliament, not HMSO or myself, is ultimately responsible for its own copyright. That is very much a matter for Parliament. If Parliament did not wish to take on the responsibility directly, that could continue to be administered on behalf of Parliament by the residual HMSO, which would also be responsible for the administration of Crown copyright and certain statutory functions. Prior to the sale of HMSO, decisions will have to be reached on the terms of copyright licences required by the new business. Decisions on parliamentary copyright are, of course, a matter for the House, and in the case of Crown copyright the Government will consider the licensing terms in the light of the need not to restrict unduly access to government material.

As I said, these days HMSO is a commercial organisation facing increased competition and shrinking markets, and therefore uncertainty about jobs in the future. Therefore, freedom from Civil Service constraints will allow the business to grow and prosper, and to compete on equal terms and expand its markets. Parliamentary officials will be involved in the process of drawing up criteria for selecting a new owner and in

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the choice of the new owner. Officials responsible for arrangements in this House and in another place have been invited to join the steering group for privatisation. The supply and service level agreements, which were signed yesterday, will form the basis of the contract for services.

I cannot imagine that at this late stage it would be convenient to the House to alter the business for next week, which has been on the Order Paper for some time. However, I take the point that the noble Lord made that we want a debate in this House as soon as possible. I know that that point has been properly registered with the usual channels on these Benches.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked who will be responsible. There will continue to be a Minister responsible for HMSO who would, if the House so desired, both administer parliamentary copyright and monitor the contract with private business.

On the point of European Union procurement, at present we expect to be able to offer a contract based on the existing arrangements. If that should change in any way, I shall, of course, write to noble Lords. I made the point in the main Statement that contracts will be enforceable in law, and that is more than is currently available to the House.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us find it rather disturbing that while another place will have the opportunity to debate this matter next week, this House, although equally affected, apparently has to wait for some indefinite date after Christmas. I wonder whether my noble friend will be prepared to reconsider the matter. It would be disappointing, of course, for those who are interested in next week's business if, on one of those days, business had to be postponed in order to make room for this matter. However, it is an issue which affects this House, as the noble Baroness admitted. Therefore, it does not seem right that while the Commons are to debate the matter at once and possibly have an impact on it, we have to wait some weeks. I ask my noble friend to reconsider the matter, either by shifting one of the items of business allocated for next week, or by sitting on Friday.

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