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Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. I should like to ask him some questions on the report although I am to speak in the debate in the name of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. My questions refer to paragraphs 4 and 8 of the report.

With regard to paragraph 4, the noble Lord referred to the change in title as regards information about Peers. However, I wonder whether the Offices Committee considered the usefulness of aligning the Register of Peers' interests with the other information which is made available by Peers about their knowledge and interests on other subjects. Surely it would be of use not

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only to Members of your Lordships' House but also to members of the public if a fuller picture of the situation was available in one document rather than having to refer to two documents.

My second point relates to paragraph 8 of the report which deals with PDVN accommodation costs. The report advises that there is,

    "the likely need for heavy expenditure",
but gives no indication of the order of magnitude. Is it possible for the House to be given some idea of the order of magnitude of such heavy expenditure to be incurred in the near future?

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I must ask the indulgence of the House notwithstanding the remarks made by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees about the desirability for all matters relating to HMSO privatisation to be left until the debate later today, which is to be led by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House.

I have not put down my name to speak in that debate, but I have one question to ask. I must beg the indulgence of the House to ask it now rather than do so during the course of the debate. In view of the remarks he made, I hope that the Chairman of Committees will understand my embarrassment in having to raise the question in this way. The report states:

    "We have also been reminded that EC law does not permit the House to enter into an open ended contract; and the contract expires on 31st March 2000, subject to the possibility of earlier termination, and is renewable for a further two years. At the end of that period, the contract will have to be put out to competitive tender".
Can the Chairman of Committees tell me how long the Community has had the right to intervene in a matter concerning this House and the printing of its debates?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, perhaps I may, first, answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Of course, I quite understand the circumstances in which he puts his question; indeed, he has done so quite properly. As I indicated, all the matters relating to that subject should be raised during the proceedings on the following Motion on the Order Paper. Therefore, perhaps I may leave that answer to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House.

I turn now to the two points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. I shall seek to help the noble Lord on the second issue. On his first point, perhaps I may consider his suggestion. On the face of it, if I may say so with respect, it seems to be a helpful suggestion. However, there may be complications and I want to investigate any possibilities in that respect before giving a definitive answer. Therefore, I shall communicate with the noble Lord at some later stage. I trust that he will forgive me for not doing so now.

I turn now to the noble Lord's second point on costs and the parliamentary data and video network (PDVN). It seems likely that, in due course, more expenditure will be required and more staff will have to be recruited to enable the PDVN to deliver the standards which your Lordships and, indeed, Members of the other place would expect. At present, all that the Offices Committee

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has agreed to is that this House should contribute 22 per cent. towards the cost of a short lease of the new accommodation required at 10 Great George Street, SW1. That particular cost in the first financial year--that is to say, the current year, 1996-97--will be £127,000. After that, for approximately five years, the cost will be £83,000 per year.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, before the House proceeds to debate the Motion on the Order Paper can the noble Lord indicate when the Motion was tabled and tell us how long noble Lords have had an opportunity to contemplate and consider it?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord without referring to the Minute, a copy of which, unfortunately, I did not bring with me. However, I believe that the Motion has been tabled for some days. I think, subject to correction, that it was tabled last Tuesday. I hope that that will have provided the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and your Lordships generally with a little time to get to grips with the points raised in the report.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

HMSO: Draft Contract

3.16 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I would submit that the terms of this Motion are narrow. We are addressing the draft contract for printing and publishing services between your Lordships' House and a privatised Stationery Office. Therefore, I do not propose to detain the House unduly by dwelling on other matters--for example, the principle of the privatisation of HMSO--as, in my submission, that would be outside the scope of the Motion.

Your Lordships will be well aware of the background to the contract. When the Offices Committee discussed the privatisation of HMSO last December, it listed certain contractual safeguards that it rightly believed to be essential to the needs of this House. Your Lordships' House then engaged lawyers specifically to draft the contract which met--and, indeed, exceeded--those criteria. It is that contract which I am now asking your Lordships to consider.

I note that not only does the Offices Committee believe that the safeguards have been met, but that, as the noble Lord observed this afternoon, such is also the opinion of counsel to the Chairman of Committees. The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Weatherill, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, will I am sure allow me to refer to a letter that I sent to them on 18th July last. In that letter I reported a conversation that I had had with counsel to the Chairman of Committees in the wake of a notice, circulated to the Offices Committee last week, which invited any member of the Committee who had doubts about the draft contract between the House and HMSO to consult counsel to the Chairman of Committees.

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However, apart from me, I understand that no one consulted counsel. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to write to my opposite numbers to report on the advice that he gave me. I was able to assure them that that, in counsel's opinion, the draft contract has entirely achieved the requirements laid down by the Offices Committee and, of course, those proposals were agreed to by your Lordships' House. In his view--and I report this with his permission--it reproduces the substance of the existing supply and services agreement but is tighter as befits a commercial contract. Counsel tells me that he is entirely satisfied that the requirements have been adequately fulfilled and that it is as tightly drawn a contract as one could have.

Noble Lords may also be interested to know that a very similar set of safeguards was requested by the authorities in another place. They have recently agreed to a similar contract. Indeed, our draft contract covers nearly £2 million-worth of work annually, compared to some £12.5 million for another place.

I am sure that many noble Lords share the stated concerns of the Offices Committee and it might, therefore, be useful, if your Lordships allow me, to outline some of the salient features of the draft contract. In all respects, I am advised that it at least meets the committee's safeguards, and in many cases exceeds them. For instance, the committee stated that steps should be taken to ensure that services continued to be provided from within central London. The contract, in fact, as your Lordships will know, ensures that the privatised Stationery Office cannot vacate HMSO's current parliamentary press in Southwark without the consent of your Lordships' House.

I know that there are many in this House, in the other place and elsewhere who are concerned about the pricing of parliamentary publications. Indeed, I have been concerned about that and I was pleased to sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, when he most helpfully intervened to ask a question last year. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that he and I are wholly at one on the importance of making parliamentary publications, in the interests of our parliamentary government, as widely available as possible. For that reason I believe that continued low cover prices are essential if the public are to be aware in particular of the work of your Lordships' House as well as of that of another place.

I am pleased, therefore, to be able to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the contract not only constrains cover prices, as the Offices Committee rightly and, I believe, unanimously requested, but also provides for real-terms price cuts of at least 2.5 per cent. per annum over the life of the contract. This, so far as I know, is the first time in the history of parliamentary publishing that such a deal has been offered. Perhaps I may add that I do not believe it very likely that such a deal would have been offered by a public-sector HMSO, although that is a matter of personal judgment.

I should also draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the contract provides for the annual cuts in the charges that your Lordships' House pays to the Stationery Office. I am sure that we would all welcome that particular provision.

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Furthermore, the contract addresses the criteria raised by the Offices Committee. It provides for a comprehensive framework of accountability whereby named senior managers of the Stationery Office will be responsible to this House for all matters connected with the contract. It also provides for the continuation of the current emergency printing arrangements and allows this House to reclaim from the Stationery Office any extra costs incurred in their operation. Those are good examples of why counsel to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees feels that the terms of the contract are both stringent and vigorous, and that there is a range of remedies up to and including termination of the contract in the event of unsatisfactory performance.

It might be worth noting that the short-listed bidders for HMSO recognised the strength of the contract. Indeed, one of them in particular wished to soften some of its provisions but has since been eliminated from the contest. The remainder have, however, stated their clear intention to agree and uphold the terms as drafted. That would clearly be in their interests because your Lordships would not be willing to modify those terms in any way, and I would certainly not suggest that your Lordships should contemplate such a step.

Your Lordships' House and, to a much greater extent as I have made clear, the other place represent arguably Her Majesty's Stationery Office's most important customers. Perhaps no sensible businessman would treat his most important customers and their wishes with anything other than the greatest respect. With respect, I would submit to your Lordships that we have here a proposal which meets and exceeds the safeguards requested by the Offices Committee. That is not my opinion, but it is a professional opinion which has hitherto been universally respected by your Lordships' House, and rightly so. The contract offers an unrivalled deal on pricing and costs and contains stringent terms in the highly unlikely event of unsatisfactory performance.

Perhaps I may add one other thing. I suggest that it would be somewhat perverse of this House not to agree to this contract, given the benefits on offer. Clearly, failure to agree would mean that we would still have to agree terms at a later date with someone, if we do not wish to set up in the publishing business ourselves, given that another place has accepted the terms of this contract. Any negotiations that we resumed with a privatised Stationery Office would be undertaken from a position of relatively greater weakness as compared with our present position. I would suggest that it is far better to secure the House's requirements in legally binding form now and share in the benefits of privatisation, which I know are not immediately apparent to all Members of your Lordships' House, but which I feel are clearly present. Therefore, I urge the House to endorse the contract.

Moved, That this House considers that the draft contract, which replaces the existing Supply and Services Agreement with HMSO, embodies the safeguards necessary to meet the requirements of the House for printing and publishing services.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

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3.25 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that the benefits of privatisation of HMSO are not apparent to those on these Benches. I am not happy with the form of the contract. It is somewhat diffusely drafted, and there is far too much legislation almost by reference. You have to go from one clause to another clause to another clause to an appendix, and then from an appendix to a tender document to find out exactly what are the obligations. Having said that, I do not particularly like the form of the contract. Perhaps that is an aesthetic rather than a legal objection, but I have to say, looking at it as best I can, the obligations that the House was concerned to place on the prospective buyer of HMSO are sufficiently set out in the contract itself. I have no great dispute with the Government over the contract per se.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to what was said in the Offices Committee Report, which the noble Viscount the Leader of the House did not mention. That report said:

    "Serious doubts were, however, expressed by some members of the Committee about the level of service which the House would receive under the contract".
We have also been reminded that European Community law does not permit the House to enter into an open-ended contract. The contract expires on 31st March 2000, subject to the possibility of earlier termination, and it is renewable for a further two years. At the end of that period the contract would have to be put out to competitive tender. If that is right, and I apprehend that it is, what we are talking about here is not a contract in perpetuity, but a contract for four years with a possible renewal of another two years, at the end of which the House and another place will have to reconsider the terms of the contract between whoever at that stage is running the Stationery Office and this House. I would be grateful if at some stage the noble Viscount could say something about that.

Of course the noble Viscount was very careful to avoid any discussion of privatisation as such. This is a privatisation too far. For the life of me, and I am doing the best I can with it, I really cannot see the purpose of this exercise. I do not see why on earth in the dying days of a dying government we have to go through this exercise. It would have been far better to have left HMSO as it was. Frankly, the House was reasonably satisfied with what it had.

3.28 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I do not propose to say anything about privatisation; I wish to speak only about the contract before the House. I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for what he has just said, and, for that matter, to the staff for their dedicated efforts in producing what I regard as a contract containing effective safeguards of the public interest, subject to one or two points which I would like to raise in a moment.

Speaking entirely for myself, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for his support for efforts to make Hansard and other

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parliamentary material available at marginal cost, or thereabouts, as happens in so many other Commonwealth and European countries. That must be in the interests of a healthy parliamentary democracy and in the interests of having an informed citizenry who are able to read what we say and do. Therefore, I am extremely glad that with Hansard and other parliamentary material--as I read the contract--being delivered free of charge over the Internet, it is proposed to reduce the price of printed material to no more than the marginal cost of distribution and sale. If that is right, I am extremely glad that that is so.

I raise three or four points for clarification. The first concerns the creation of a level playing field for the commercial distribution of the House's material in added value electronic form. There will, of course, be commercial publishing companies competing with the Stationery Office Limited in disseminating to the public parliamentary material in added value form. That will happen in addition to the publication of the House's material through the Internet by the Stationery Office Limited. It is therefore important to ensure that the Stationery Office Limited has no commercial or operational advantage over other publishers in creating added value services because of its "preferred supplier" status, in the words of the contract.

I should be grateful if the noble Viscount could assure the House that the Stationery Office Limited's added value operations will receive the House's material on exactly the same terms, including time of access, as all other electronic publishers. Those points are covered briefly in Clause 28 of what I call the electronic form contract. But the situation is not wholly clear, at least to me, although unlike the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I happen to think that by the normal standards of commercial drafting the contract is elegant and even concise. However, I must confess that it is not wholly clear to me. There are examples in other countries of monopoly publishers of official material abusing their position to give preference to their own commercial activities. It would therefore be helpful if it could be made clear that the core service activities--in the language of the contract--of the Stationery Office Limited under Clause 2 will include an express reference to the

    "provision of those documents to any holder of a licence issued by or on behalf of the House".
Or, if that cannot be done because it is too late to amend the contractual language, can that point please be addressed in some other way?

My second point is about publication times for electronic material. Publication times are detailed in Schedule 1, Part 2 of the draft contract. I apologise to ordinary human beings in the House who do not have to read contractual language and construe it. As I am a lawyer I hope I shall be forgiven for what I am now doing. In the words of the contract,

    "publication times assume normal timetables for supply of copy from the House for print production, thus allowing printer's text to be made available to meet electronic publishing schedules".

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That suggests to me that it is intended that the electronic version will be held up until printed copies are available. If that were right--I hope it is wrong--it would mean that new technology would be held back to the speed of the old technology. That would, with respect, be a timid and unsatisfactory approach which reminds me of the time when red flags went up before steam engines could advance along the railway track. It is inevitable that the full benefits of the speed of electronic publication will at some stage be permitted by your Lordships' House.

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