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Lord Richard: My Lords, before the noble Viscount leaves that point, does it mean that, as some of us apprehend, the contract is for four years, possibly another two, and thereafter it must be put out to competitive tender? Is that its effect?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, legal advice on European Community law was that the contract should, so far as possible, reflect the existing supply and service agreement, including the term of the contract. As I understand it--and the noble Lord will be more aware

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of EC law than I--the law is clear that such contracts must have a term and must therefore be re-negotiated at the end of that term.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, mentioned the impact of the European Union. The contract is for the House to offer. The only impact of European Union law is in terms of the need to tender competitively. That need will be subject to the precise terms of the contract and whether it falls within the regulations of public service contracts, which I have already tried to set out for your Lordships.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked a number of questions which I shall endeavour to answer as best I can. He mentioned a level playing field. I refer him to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who discussed the matter earlier this year in another place. The Stationery Office will be required to be licensed to reproduce Crown and parliamentary copyright material in a value added format, in exactly the same way as any other publisher. It will have no inherent advantage at all in the field. I hope that that satisfies noble Lords. We have that on record in both Houses.

As we made clear in the course of exchanges during the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I should emphasise that the electronic contract is a different contract. Apart from specifically requiring a level playing field, electronic publication will follow paper publication. As I understand it, it is a transitional arrangement designed to protect the rights of Peers; that is, of your Lordships. But it is assumed that the order of publication will be reversed in due course, as I believe it has been in Australia. The general rule about the time of publication is that parliamentary papers should not be available to the public before they are available to Members of your Lordships' House. I am sure that your Lordships would wish to maintain that situation and in that respect nothing has changed.

Therefore, the timing of release of the electronic version is a practical rather than a policy matter. At the moment, the assembly of data for electronic publication is a by-product of the printing process. We do not wish to introduce any delay into electronic publication.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, also mentioned judgments. My advice is that they are not at the moment printed by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, nor are they the subject of the contract. They are not parliamentary papers as such, but are circulated by the Judicial Office on the authority of the Lord Chancellor. They are therefore subsequently published in the All England Law Reports. I confess that I cannot speak nearly as authoritatively on that point as the noble Lord, but that is the advice that I have been given.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. Surely the judgments are also published in the official reports which, as I understand it, have always been published at public expense.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am the last to want to enter into a jousting competition with two such distinguished barristers. May I take further advice on

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this point and write to both noble Lords? I will place my answer in the Library. I apologise that I am unable to give an authoritative answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, talked about taking functions back into the control of this House. I submit that the House has never had such control, even under the present arrangements. Her Majesty's Stationery Office is a department of Her Majesty's Government, not of this House. In order to satisfy the criteria that the noble Lord seems to want this House to have, your Lordships would have to acquire and operate your own facilities.

The noble Lord also talked about control of the contract and referred to the last section, paragraph 28.8. The ability to go to law in a dispute is a backstop which offers additional protection to the current situation. The normal operation of the contract will be a partnership between the House and the Stationery Office, as it now is between the House and HMSO. My limited knowledge of legal matters tells me that it is usual to specify under which law of which country a contract is to operate. Therefore for us not to specify that, or to specify that it would operate under the law of another country, would be rather perverse.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for giving way. I admit that I may not have expressed myself very well in my earlier intervention. The point I was trying to make was that, as I understand the situation at the moment, the Clerk of the Parliaments, presumably together with the Serjeant at Arms in the other place, could have direct discussions with the controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office to resolve any problems that might arise. Ultimately the outcome would be a government decision, given, as the noble Viscount said, it is a department of government. The difference between the situation that I understand currently pertains and the situation once we have entered into a contract with the private supplier, is that any disputes that might arise in future would not be amenable to discussion through what might be described as the usual channels and government decision ultimately answerable to Parliament; any disputes arising would have to go before a court of law for resolution.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I refer the noble Lord particularly to the third section of the contract, which sets out very clearly the relationship between an accountable manager and the authorised officer of this House who is charged by the House to maintain the very sort of contact which the noble Lord wishes us to maintain. I hope that if he takes another look at those provisions he will feel that they have been rather more fully set out than they are at present.

I would never dream of intervening in a technical discussion as to the elegance or otherwise of this contract. However, I was amused to note that so distinguished a barrister as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, felt that the contract was not couched in the most elegant form, while the noble Lord, Lord Lester, took a contrary view. I leave it to the House to make its own aesthetic judgment in matters of this kind.

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Finally--I am well aware that I have taken rather a long time--I have endeavoured to answer, I hope reasonably adequately, the serious matters raised by a number of noble Lords. Fundamentally we are talking about something rather straightforward. As privatisation approaches, it is essential that this House should make satisfactory arrangements for the future provision of printing and publishing. It is important that those arrangements should safeguard the high standards of service that we have enjoyed from HMSO in recent years. As I said in opening, this draft contract does all that, and more.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, tempted me just a little. We have already debated the merits or otherwise of privatisation. We did so at some length in January this year. I see little point in rehearsing the arguments now, particularly since there has been very strong interest on the part of bidders inquiring into the business. It is clear that the Stationery Office and its staff have a sound and prosperous future in the private sector. On those grounds alone it would be very unwise to seek to forestall this contract at a very late stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who is an infinitely more distinguished historian than I, was kind enough to refer to my great, great grandfather. He was a pragmatist. He was also an extremely successful businessman. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, with his knowledge of the commercial world, will also be aware of what happens to commercial companies which once enjoyed a monopoly, as HMSO did, when that monopoly disappears and they are not allowed to try to expand their markets into other fields. One of the penalties has been that the number employed by HMSO has declined distressingly. As government departments fish elsewhere in order to satisfy their requirements for stationery and other matters, HMSO, if it finds itself unable to compete, may preserve the virtues of public service but in the end will find itself declining ever more distressingly and more jobs will be lost. I suggest that the great Lord Salisbury would have been swayed by that argument rather more than by the ideological purity of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.

Maintaining HMSO in government ownership can only lead to further decline as private sector competitors take an increasing share of that diminishing market. That also begins to answer the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, who asked whether it would have been possible to decrease the prices of printed papers published by HMSO if it remained in the public sector. A company in that kind of trouble would find it difficult to reduce prices and still remain viable.

This House should be under no illusions as to the consequences of failing to sign this contract. I have tried to make that perfectly clear. I hope that your Lordships will agree with me that the sensible course is to agree to the Motion standing in my name.

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