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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I can give my noble friend the assurance that his pressing request, and the rather persuasive way in which he put it, will be put to my noble friends the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to explain the present status of HMSO. I gather that it is owned by the Government; otherwise they would have no power to dispose of it. Is it at present subject to the provisions of the Government Trading Act which, as noble Lords will recall, went through this House in all its stages in March and June 1990? At that time, and in aid of the provisions of the Government Trading Act, the Government Front Bench made great play of the fact that the provisions would
HMSO is either a Next Steps agency or it is not. If it is not, what is it? Is it subject to the Government Trading Act that was passed through Parliament? Subject to the answer that I receive from the noble Baroness regarding the precise status, I have to give her notice that if at this time it is a Next Steps agency referred to in the Government's own White Paper, I shall have to indict the Government. Its disposal or privatisation would be completely against the undertakings given by the Minister in this House concerning the future and its possible privatisation. My next action, or, I hope, those of my noble friends on the Front Bench, will depend precisely on that answer.
In the meantime, I have only two observations. One covers the other place, and the other relates to your Lordships' House. The price of Hansard covering the activities of another place in 1979 was 45p. That was also the price at that time of your Lordships' Hansard. At present the price of the Official Report of another place is £7.50, a rise of about 1,500 per cent. since the Government took office. The price of the Official Report of this House is now £4.20, an increase of over 800 per cent.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I may take the final point first. As regards prices, the predictions are that if nothing changes the situation could become worse. One of the aims of the changes is that we should receive a more cost effective service. That cost effectiveness will be passed on to customers purchasing HMSO documents.
As regards status, as I understand it HMSO is a trading fund and a Next Steps agency. One of the problems is that the body is limited to publicly funded customers. The whole point of the new arrangements would be to free it up to be on equal footing with a private company and thereby to have access to greater markets.
Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, for a long period verbatim proceedings of this House were not printed. We depended upon the bound copies of The Times such as we have in the corridors of this House. When it was decided to print Hansard, was that decision made by the government of the day or by Parliament? The answer may assist the Government as a precedent for what they wish to do now.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not able to tell my noble friend whether that decision was made by Parliament or by an agency on behalf of Parliament. It will be for this House to take a view about the service level it requires. It will be for this House to assure itself that there is no compromising whatever over the
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, will the noble Baroness be kind enough to deal with two points which I put earlier. She did not cover them in her reply. I asked specifically what happens if this House were to come to the conclusion that the terms of the eventual settlement were unsatisfactory. Does it have the right simply to reject them and will the Government honour that decision?
Secondly, I asked whether she would write to me on the question of the EU procurement rules. I asked a far more detailed question than the one she answered. I should be grateful if she will reply to me in writing.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I said I would write to the noble Lord on EU procurement. As regards the other point, if we are not satisfied as a House, then we do not have to sign up to these arrangements. Therefore if the terms are unsatisfactory, and we cannot so safeguard, or the levels of service in this House are so compromised, then this House does not have to sign up.
It is also important to remember that this House on its own is not a very large customer. Therefore, if all the other areas of the Crown plus the other place decide to sign up, we may find ourselves having to consider having our needs satisfied by another customer. But we are not bound to sign up, and we are very definitely empowered to safeguard our own interests.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not sure that I understood the last point. Perhaps I may seek clarification. The Minister stated that in order not to prejudice the bids coming in, she is not able to say how much the whole enterprise is worth. Given that we have had experience in the past of privatisations which have been too cheap--as evidenced by subsequent takeovers--is there a price below which the Government will not sell HMSO?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is inappropriate to be discussing this kind of detail across the Dispatch Box at this stage in the process. What is absolutely certain and very important is that officials representing the interests of this House are fully involved in the process and that the House Committee is fully informed at all stages, and that they are involved in the shortlisting process and are ultimately party to the decision as to whether to enter into a contract. The terms of the contract would include the price the Government will receive and the levels of service that will be satisfied by the contracts that will be determined by the House. All those separate interests are safeguarded. To be talking now about the value of the company, to be pre-empting at this stage trading conditions and future prospects, is very premature. As I understand it, that will all be part of an information memorandum which will become public much nearer the time.
I say this with some concern since, when I was responsible for HMSO a long while ago, it dealt with, of all things, the printing of telephone directories. When that function was put out to private suppliers, one of those interested was a Mr. Maxwell. I am glad to say that he did not secure that particular arrangement; I had a hand in that at the time. Think of the difficulties that might arise if a future Mr. Maxwell were running the company responsible for printing all our parliamentary papers! Are we absolutely clear that proper safeguards will be in place?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, again, my noble friend is absolutely right. I am happy to go on emphasising the importance of knowing what we want in terms of levels of service and making sure that they are properly specified. We have made a good start. Yesterday, service level agreements were signed both by this House and another place. I have made it clear that they will form the basis of a contract under the new arrangements. I am also happy to say that it will be for Parliament to determine the duration of the contracts, and they will be legally enforceable. That is what is important: knowing our own mind, safeguarding our own interests, and making sure that the contract is drawn up in a way that is legally enforceable.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, it seems to me that the purpose of this privatisation is to get costs down and find new markets. Why, then, can we not just follow the well-trodden path of getting in some new management to introduce new technology, bring the costs down and give the service that is required? Is the reason that that would merely add to government spending and therefore HMSO has to be privatised? Surely it would be better to reorganise the business under its present ownership and thereby retain all the security about which noble Lords are concerned.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I believe the noble Lord has completely missed the point I made. HMSO has made enormous strides under the new arrangements of being a trading fund and a Next Steps agency. It has effected a number of very important changes--
Baroness Blatch: within the public sector, which have produced increased cost-effectiveness. What it cannot do anything about is the shrinking market and its inability to trade outside publicly funded organisations. The reasons for privatisation are to give security to the workforce, to allow HMSO to grow and prosper and to allow it access to other markets. That is the purpose--
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