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Lord Ironside: My Lords, in addition to the number of passes which have been issued to members of the Press Gallery, can the noble Lord now say whether there has been any change in the number of parking permits issued to named members of the Press Gallery, which stood at 18 in 1993?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, I shall resist the temptation to enter the quagmire of the subject of parking in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster. I am briefed on the number of passes, but I regret to say that I am not briefed on the matter the noble Lord has raised. If I can help him, I shall do so in writing.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees agree that the number of passes issued for people to cover the two Houses of Parliament seems to be in inverse proportion to the coverage that is provided? Does he agree that there may

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be a price to be paid by the media representatives in respect of the number of passes that are issued in terms of longer and better coverage of the two Houses?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am very much in favour of greater coverage of your Lordships' House, as it works hard. A great deal is done not only in your Lordships' Chamber but also in your Lordships' committees. That work is well worth publicising. I was heartened by the amount of coverage given recently in the press and by the broadcasting organisations to the report on antibiotics--that is not its full title--which was published fairly recently. The noble Lord is quite right about the difference between the number of passes issued by your Lordships' House and another place. Some 19 have been issued by your Lordships' House and 491 by another place.

Lord Elton: My Lords, given the large number of passes issued to reporters and the small amount of reporting that is carried out, and given the noble Lord's experience in the media, can he tell us what these people are doing?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am tempted to follow the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, as I have a modicum of sympathy with his question. However, the media representatives are doing a great deal. One has to bear in mind the coverage not only of the national television stations but also of the regional television stations, the national radio stations and the local, sometimes quite small, radio stations, and the agencies. In addition there is complete national and regional press coverage. A considerable amount of media coverage is needed. Therefore I think it is right that a sizeable number of media passes should be issued to permit media representatives to enter the Palace of Westminster.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, does my noble friend have in his brief an estimated cost of this media coverage?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I regret to say that I do not. I doubt that I shall be able to assist on that matter, but if I can I shall do so.

Post Office Review

2.54 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to give greater commercial freedom to the Post Office.

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade announced in the other place on Monday 6th April the second phase of the Post Office review. This will make recommendations on the Post Office's future structure, organisation and financing that will best deliver greater commercial freedom for the Post Office within the

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public sector. The Government intend to announce their proposals in the autumn. Further details are set out in the Government's observations to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on the third report of the 1997-98 session of the Post Office, which was published by the committee on 14th April.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Does he acknowledge that the previous Tory government rather cynically used the Post Office as a cash cow, stripping it of most of its profits and denying it the freedom to develop its profitable areas of business? Will my noble friend consider the proposition that the best way forward for the Post Office is not privatisation but for it to be converted into a publicly owned plc with an agreed limitation on what the Treasury would receive from the Post Office's annual profits?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, my noble friend tempts me rather too soon to describe the detail of the structure which we wish to put in place after this next stage of the review. It is quite right to assume that we expect the Post Office to remain in the public sector but with a greater independence to achieve the kind of flexibility in commercial terms that we have long wished to see for it. In terms of financing, I believe the Post Office is currently investing between £400 million and £450 million a year, so the capital investment flows are quite encouraging. However, a limitation on the rest of the flows which would pass to the Treasury is a matter that we shall review during this second stage.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, following the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, does the Minister agree that there are enormous technological developments in post offices throughout the world, and that the British Post Office, in spite of its great expertise, has hitherto been held back in meeting that challenge? Will the noble Lord therefore confirm--arising out of his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Evans--that in the solution found by the Government later this year they will make sure that they will not denude the Post Office of such a large proportion of its post-tax profits as has hitherto been the case; namely, up to 90 per cent. compared with about 30 per cent. from a normal company, and that it will be given the freedom to go to the market to raise money for valid propositions?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that there are enormous technological developments taking place in postal services around the world. We certainly want to ensure that our Post Office is competitive in international markets. We shall not have to wait until the end of the review to make some progress because my right honourable friend in the other House announced that, with immediate effect from her announcement, there would be limited freedoms for the Post Office to enter into joint ventures in the domestic market to enable it to take advantage of these developing technologies, as has occurred in other countries. We are well seized of that. I shall not be tempted into discussing the numbers which fall from the

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capital budget and the Treasury requirements. That is something that we have to look at extremely carefully. The purpose is to have an internationally competitive Post Office. We must take care as regards the balance between capital expenditure and dividend to the Treasury.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, will my noble friend exercise some caution in allowing flexibility to the Post Office as regards the closure of village post offices? Is he aware that if solely commercial criteria were applied to many of these organisations they would have to close, but they provide a social service which is irreplaceable by any other means?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. During the consultation period, which was undertaken before the announcement in April, it was made absolutely clear that the users regarded that as a high priority. Most of the 20,000 outlets are in private hands. Rural post offices need to be effective and profitable for the people who want to run them. That, of course, rests on the quality and range of services that they can offer. We are trying to make sure that the Post Office modernises and offers a wide range of services so that we can keep as many outlets open as possible.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give an absolute assurance that whatever the Government propose in the autumn of this year they will in no way interfere with the universal postage rates which prevail throughout the United Kingdom?

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I believe that that was one of the criteria which were attached to the Statement that my right honourable friend made in the other House in April when the second stage was launched.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Minister's previous answer seemed to imply that the Post Office would offer so many services that any rural post office would be able to be profitable. That will not be the case. I should like to hear the noble Lord say that the Government will continue the subsidy to these post offices after all the services have been exhausted.

Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord slightly misheard me. I did not say that all rural post offices would be profitable. I said that the objective of the exercise was to develop services to make it as attractive as possible for private sector individuals still to maintain trade through a wide network across the country. Clearly if one seeks to offer a universal service with a universal pricing basis, there will be occasions when the arithmetic does not work. We shall cope with those problems when we come to them. How that situation will be coped with will be part of the inquiry.

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