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Lord Richard: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way because I wish to be clear about this matter. Is he telling the House that there will be no opportunity for this House to take a decision on the merits or otherwise of the Government's proposals and that we are limited to taking a decision on who should be the buyer and also the contract in relation to parliamentary papers? Is that what we shall be confined to? If so, I do not believe that he will find that acceptable on this side of the House.

Earl Howe: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify what I have said. As I mentioned, the question of parliamentary scrutiny has two strands. The second strand is the privatisation proposal itself.

Perhaps I may deal with something which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said before I directly answer the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, referred to the Government's undertaking in 1990 to introduce primary legislation whenever a trading fund was to be privatised. I believe that he will have received an answer to the question on this subject which he raised in the debate in December from my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, so he will already know the position. But, for the benefit of all your Lordships, perhaps I may say that the Trading Act will not be used to privatise HMSO. The undertaking in 1990 was given in a context when primary legislation was always required for privatisation for technical reasons associated with the terms on which civil servants would transfer to their new employment. Those shortcomings have been resolved and there is no need for primary legislation. The 1990 undertaking is not breached because it is simply not relevant.

The fact is that the House heard the Statement last month and has now had a debate. The question of privatisation is now for the Government while the question for the House is that of the contract for the supply of services.

Lord McNally: My Lords, as a new boy, I really am confused. However, I believe that the Minister's reply is no to the question put by the noble Lord,

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Lord Richard, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and others as to whether the House is to have an opportunity to debate the matter.

Earl Howe: My Lords, my understanding is that there is no legal need for Parliament to vote on the matter. But, of course, Parliament and your Lordships' House are free to debate it again if that is decided through the usual channels. I am certainly not pre-empting such a decision.

The more fundamental point is that the Government want the best buyer to take forward successfully the Stationery Office. The House will want the best possible supplier of services. I suggest that it is right and proper for the Government and both Houses of Parliament to work in concert to see that their mutual objectives are attained.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was worried that after privatisation Parliament would no longer be able to call upon a Minister to explain the performance of HMSO. Ministers are accountable only for matters based on government policy. Day-to-day operational matters are already quite properly the responsibility of the chief executive. There is little difference between that system and the appropriate representative of the privatised company being called to account by the House under its contract with the company. Private sector companies are quite used to such arrangements in their daily relationships. Indeed, the House already buys services from the private sector and I am not aware that the absence of a Minister to answer on the provision of those services has led to a poorer service. However, there would continue to be a Minister responsible for the residual HMSO which would, if the House and another place so wished, administer parliamentary copyright.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I apologise for returning to this point but I am in a state of mild confusion. The discussion of the Offices Committee on this matter resulted in the laying down of a number of conditions which, in its view, would have to be met in order to ensure that the rights of this House were preserved. Is it being said that ultimately, there is not to be a debate in this House on the very question dealt with by the Offices Committee; namely, whether that which we are to be offered by the new private sector supplier of those services meets those conditions or not? Surely that is the least that we can ask for.

Earl Howe: My Lords, there could well be such a debate. As I said, I would not wish to pre-empt a decision of your Lordships through the usual channels to that effect.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Although I have heard only about half the speeches in the debate, I did hear that of the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal. I understood him to say, not that there could be, but that there certainly would be, such a debate. It seems to me that there is a certain amount of backtracking going on. It ought to be absolutely clear-cut.

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I should, perhaps, declare an interest as I too am a member of the Offices Committee. I was never in any doubt until this minute that we would debate the report of the Offices Committee on a Motion to be put before your Lordships. However, I now find myself astonished at the noble Earl's current replies. They do not correspond with anything I understood to be the case.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am sorry for that fact. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, was indeed present for the opening speech, but I did not see him in his place for the rest of the debate. It is a matter for the usual channels to decide. With great respect to my noble friend the Leader of the House, I must point out that he could not have given such an undertaking because it is not within his personal gift to do so. We are perfectly open on this side of the House to such a suggestion from the Benches opposite. We shall listen constructively to any proposals.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I expressed strong support for the Government's policy in this regard. However, in the course of my speech I said that it was enormously important that we achieved the safeguards spelt out in the report of the Offices Committee. It seems to me to be inconceivable that the Government could expect to proceed with the matter without giving the House the opportunity to have a yea or a nay as to whether or not the proposed terms are acceptable. I hope that my noble friend the Minister would feel able to give that undertaking.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I entirely take my noble friend's point. However, I return to the fact that it is a matter for the House to decide. Indeed, it is for your Lordships to decide.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, with the greatest respect, I believe that the noble Earl is talking nonsense. When the Leader of the Opposition--and I take the same view as the noble Lord--says strongly to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that there must be a debate on the matter it is plain nonsense for the noble Earl, sitting alongside the Leader of the House and the Government spokesman, to say that a government undertaking cannot be given on the issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I believe that the message has reached these Benches very loudly that there is a general desire in your Lordships' House for a debate to take place on the matter. That is no more and no less than I would have said earlier. Indeed, I am neither oblivious nor deaf to the proposals that have been made.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but, with the greatest of respect, the matter will go on until we receive a little more satisfaction. I know that I am irritating the people who are participating in the next debate, but I believe that the Government must give the undertaking that they will provide time for a debate on the matter at the appropriate time. For heaven's sake, why on earth can they not do so? I thought that they had already agreed to do so half a dozen times. Indeed, they said so in another place. It seems to me that the Government must

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be in a position tonight to satisfy the obvious desire of the House to have a debate on the matter when, if necessary, a vote can take place.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I do not believe that there is any distance at all between myself and the noble Lord. As I said, the House has expressed a wish to have further debate on the matter. I am sure that from our side of the House we have no objection to that at all. It is not within my personal gift to agree to it, but my noble friend the Leader of the House--and, indeed, the usual channels on all sides of the House--will no doubt decide the question after today's debate is concluded.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, a little earlier in his speech the noble Earl was kind enough to indicate that he disputed my account of the undertakings given to this House about the necessity for primary legislation before any of the Next Steps agencies were privatised. I should like to give the Minister notice that I intend to persist in my contention that the undertaking that was given ought to apply. The utmost pressure will be exerted through whatever channels necessary, either in this or the other place, to ensure that the Government honour obligations that were freely given.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I suggest that the noble Lord reads what I have said in Hansard. I was not in the least suggesting that the undertaking was not given; I was saying that it was no longer relevant because the law has changed and there is now no legal need for primary legislation.

I am aware that my time is slipping away, and I do not wish to detain your Lordships for longer than need be. Perhaps I may continue by saying that we have already begun consultations with the authorities here and in another place on the contractual and other safeguards which will be needed. We shall continue those consultations throughout the sale process. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has also given evidence in another place to the Finance and Services Select Committee on the sale, and, as my noble friend the Leader of the House said, he would be happy to appear before other Select Committees as required. Parliamentary officials will advise the Government on Parliament's needs which will assist the Government in drawing up criteria for selecting a new owner and, indeed, in the choice of the new owner.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, asked what would happen if there were a future takeover following privatisation. I believe that there are several answers to that question, but the most powerful one is that the contract with this House can provide for termination in the event of a change of ownership. Given the importance of parliamentary business to the company, I suggest that that is a powerful deterrent.

My noble friend Lord Northesk identified one of the most interesting issues of the day in raising the question of the developing relationship between electronic and paper media. He was right to suggest that that is an important matter for the House. The Government already put information on to the Internet and the policy in that area is developing. However, Hansard is a matter

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for your Lordships' House. Certainly the contract with the privatised business should allow the House to take advantage of any technological developments which offer benefit to the public interest.

My noble friend Lord Pearson asked whether editions of Hansard might include publishing our Committee, Report and Third Reading procedures, complete with a Marshalled List and amendment groupings for the day. At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that that is essentially a matter for the House authorities. If the material can be made available for printing at the appropriate time, I am advised that there would be no practical difficulty whatever to that suggestion; indeed, I am grateful to my noble friend for making it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, asked what was happening to the market testing of MoD business. The MoD is currently taking advice from consultants on future arrangements for its stationery and printing requirements. It is likely that the present agreement will be extended for a short period--that is, one or two years--so that the MoD can plan and execute a well-structured market test.

The noble Baroness also spoke about TUPE. I believe that the essence of what she said was that TUPE offers only vague and inadequate protection to employees, especially in respect of pensions. I do not accept that argument. Both the Government and likely bidders are well acquainted with implementing TUPE and ensuring that staff are treated fairly as a result. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to intervene. I give way.

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