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Lord Peston: My Lords, I interrupt the noble Lord for a second time to ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House whether we are debating the electronic contract at all. I thought we were debating the other contract as it were. I am totally lost therefore as regards the electronic contract.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, as this is my Motion I am extremely sorry that I also find myself somewhat lost. As always I am hugely impressed by the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I, too, thought we were debating what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, mentioned. However, I find the noble Lord's remarks of great interest to your Lordships' House. As always I am in the hands of the House but this is an important matter. I greatly sympathise as regards the parallel I believe the noble Lord drew of the red flag in front of an early motor car. Unless the House wishes to cut the noble Lord short, I think it would be worth while to listen to the conclusion of his remarks.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I can be relied upon to get procedure wrong anywhere, especially in this House. However, I had thought that the draft contract which replaces the existing supply and services agreement with HMSO embodied two draft contracts which were made available to Members of the House. One deals with printed matter and the other deals with electronic matter. I have just one or two other points to make--
Lord Peston: My Lords, I interrupt the noble Lord a third time and apologise to him for doing so yet again. Like the noble Viscount the Leader of the House I am interested in what the noble Lord is saying. I think I am in agreement with him, but my problem is that I did not have the faintest idea that was what we were going to talk about. As someone quite obsessed with these electronic things I should like to have known about that so that I could debate the matter with the noble Lord.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I apologise for intervening again. I think I was less than clear in my intervention in the noble Lord's speech. I am grateful to him for his patience as regards this double act between the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and myself. The draft contract to which I refer in my Motion is the agreement for printing, publishing and other services. There is another contract which I think is referred to in the Offices Committee Report which is not the subject of my Motion; namely, an agreement for the electronic publication and distribution of parliamentary material. Strictly that is not within the scope of the Motion. The House was quite right to listen with patience to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, when he referred to the principle of privatisation of HMSO. I am in the hands of the House as regards how much latitude the House will want to give to the noble Lord, Lord Lester.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I shall be brief because I had almost finished my second point. I said that as regards publication times for electronic material, the time will surely come soon when the full benefits of the speed of electronic publication will be permitted by the House. I believe that is the position in both Houses of the Australian Parliament. As the electronic version will in practice be ready but under embargo--as I read the contracts--for a period before the printed version is available, there is scope for leaks and privileged access which I do not favour. Perhaps I can say in my defence that it is difficult to look at the print contract and turn a blind eye to the electronic contract because the two impact upon each other and have repercussive implications.
I refer to a related point. In the report of the committee of another place on access to that House's information it was suggested that Members of that House would receive information before non-Members; that is, before members of the public and the media. Speaking of this House, it is surely essential that the general rule under both these contracts should be that Members of this House--and I dare say of another--should have access to parliamentary material at the same time as the public and the media. I realise that there may have to be specific occasions where that is inappropriate, but the general rule should surely be one of simultaneity. There are many reasons why that should be the case including those of investor protection. Parliamentary material will sometimes have implications for investors. Members of this House and members of the staff of this House may be investors. There would be clear dangers in Members of either House enjoying a timing benefit over other investors.
The best principles developed in the financial services industry require simultaneous disclosure of information to all. The draft agreement seems to be silent on that point. I should therefore be most grateful if the noble Viscount would clarify whether Members of this House--and for that matter the staff of this House--would enjoy a timing advantage, and, if so, how the dangers to which I have referred would be dealt with.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for introducing the debate, even though it transpired that it is only half the introduction needed following the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
One of the first remarks that I noted from the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal was that advice from the counsel to the Chairman of Committees was important. That will be the theme of my contribution. The result of the contract will be that instead of the Clerk of the Parliaments being in control of the printing, publication and dissemination of our proceedings--making them available to Members of your Lordships' House--control will move from the Clerk of the Parliaments to the counsel to the Chairman of Committees. In effect we are surrendering control from ourselves to the Law Courts. I refer noble Lords to Clause 28.8 under the heading, "Governing Law and Jurisdiction". It states:
I was rather curious to hear the noble Viscount report that the price cuts offered under the contract would not be possible under the continued operation of the Stationery Office as a direct labour organisation. If price cuts can be achieved in the private sector which cannot be achieved if the body is run by this Government, it suggests to me that the Government are not good managers of business.
The noble Viscount also reported that while we were in a strong position now to write this contract--other noble Lords have suggested that it is a tight contract which provides all the safeguards needed--in future
I have referred to the fact that the very existence of the contract shifts control from the Clerk of the Parliaments to the lawyers. It is also worth noting--it was referred to by my noble friends Lord Richard and Lord Bruce of Donington--that once we go down this road of privatisation the situation will be taken out of our hands. Initially, control will be in the hands of the English courts, but within a relatively short space of time in the timescale of parliamentary proceedings it will end up in the jurisdiction of the European Union. The contract will have to be put out to competitive tender. In effect that means that the contract is offered to anyone within the European Union to fulfil.
It is one thing to allow our proceedings to be subject to the control of the English courts and English lawyers. It is quite another to allow the control of our proceedings to pass beyond that to a company which may not even be constituted within the English jurisdiction.
We have to ask two further questions. How far will privatisation go? During Starred Questions recently a noble Lord suggested that any direct labour organisation was fundamentally wrong. Does that extend to the Armed Forces of the Crown? That is the logic of the Government's position. They will continue to privatise until eventually nothing is left. Have they already had expressions of interest from rich Americans to buy the Palace of Westminster on a leaseback arrangement? That is the logic of the Government's position in continuing down the road of privatisation.
My final question for the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal is this. How difficult will it be to repatriate (if I may so put it) the printing and publishing of our proceedings to our direct control? How easy will it be to take back control of our own proceedings? I hope that the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal can answer that question. I suspect that he may not be able to do so.
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