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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon from the Front Bench.

Yesterday's Statement was welcome in that it gave some detail about how the Government see the preservation of rural post offices. The Minister gave a fair amount of detail about that in the accompanying booklet produced yesterday by the Performance and Innovation Unit. I still maintain, as does my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, that it is extraordinary that that report should be released three-quarters of the way through the parliamentary consideration of the Bill. My noble friend asked whether the Bill required any amendment. I am with him; I think that the Bill does now require amendment.

The noble Lord may say that the Government did not know when the PIU would produce its report. It would have been sensible to wait until the PIU had reported, or for one of his officials to have telephoned the unit and ask when the Government should programme the parliamentary consideration of the Bill.

None the less, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, on two points, one of course being his description of Conservative Party policy on the issue and the second being his great belief in the administration under which we now find ourselves. Of course, we trust the Minister and his colleagues on the Front Bench implicitly, but we should not legislate on

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the basis of words in government Statements. The amendment converts those sentiments into clear instructions to the commission. It would be very difficult, given the wide consensus in this House and in another place in favour of preserving a strong network of rural post offices, for the commission not to be so instructed, so I support my noble friend.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I declare an interest, as a pensioner of the Post Office.

I congratulate the Government on their immediate and positive response to the PIU report. It is such an excellent report in its recommendations on rural sub-post offices that it would be well to see the Government's wishes incorporated in legislation. By definition, all Members of this House are honourable Members, but over the passage of time what is said in good faith may have diminished commitment, whereas if something is in a Bill the government of the day have to explain, and persuade the House, if there is such a diminished commitment.

Therefore, although I understand the immense drafting difficulties in giving a legal interpretation, I hope that the Minister will consider what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, proposes in her amended amendment, not with a view to saying yes today, but with a view to saying that he will think about how to give more substance to the intentions of all Members of this honourable House.

I wish to mention one qualification, following what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said about the suburban sub-post offices outside areas of deprivation, areas which are well covered by the government Statement and the PIU report. It seems from the wording of the Secretary of State's Statement and the recommendation in section 8 of the PIU report, which explicitly envisages reductions by the Post Office in the number of these sub-post offices, that they should be bigger and better, and perhaps more vibrant. Perhaps the Government would be mindful of people of very mature years in straitened circumstances--there are many such people in suburban areas that are not areas of deprivation--who find it difficult to walk far and who live where there is limited public transport.

The question of hurt to people is not limited to the rural areas. There is also the question of hurt to the viability of the whole of a little shopping parade struggling to maintain services to its local community. If the post office in such a parade is closed, the viability of the other shops is imperilled, as is the service to people of modest means without cars. I hope that the Government will reflect very carefully on whether guidance can be given to the Post Office on handling such situations. I also hope that if for social reasons, rather than economic reasons, such an office should be maintained, the Government will exercise their powers to provide support.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I shall deal with the amendment first, because it is not only inappropriate, but technically deficient, and then with the whole series of issues raised that were not specifically directed

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to the amendment, including the question of real concern to noble Lords, which is that we deliver on our commitments to support rural post offices and encourage investment in other post offices.

The effect of the amendment would be to require the commission to exercise its functions in a manner which it considers best calculated to ensure the maintenance of a network of rural post offices at a level comparable to that which exists on the day the Bill is passed. That duty does not fit easily with the commission's duties under Clauses 3 and 5, which are respectively to ensure the provision of a universal service and otherwise to further the interests of users of postal services where appropriate by promoting effective competition between postal operators.

In so far as any problems with the network have an impact or potential impact on the maintenance of the universal postal service, it will, of course, be for the commission to take action to ensure that the situation is remedied in line with its duty as set out in Clause 3.

However, where the issues or problems do not affect the provision of the universal service, but nevertheless undermine access to public post offices and the government and other services available through them, it is a matter for the commission, acting not as an independent regulator but in its role as an expert body providing information and advice to the Government, as required by the Government. It is important that these roles should be seen as distinct. It is not for the regulator to provide financial assistance to rural post offices; that is clearly, as in the whole structure of the Bill, the responsibility of the Government.

Clause 42 imposes a duty on the commission to provide, in consultation with the Consumer Council, advice and information to the Secretary of State about the number and location of public post offices of such description as the Secretary of State may specify and their accessibility to users of postal and other services. The provisions of Clause 42, together with the requirement in Clause 45(2)(e) to report annually to the Secretary of State on such matters as the Secretary of State may require, provide all that is needed of the commission in respect of the postal network, where the issues go far beyond the maintenance of a universal postal service.

I hope that I have made the point very clear: if the amendment were made it would totally change the structure of the commission's role, in an undesirable way. The commission, which has very clear duties set down, would be given a responsibility which is not its responsibility, but clearly the Government's.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, before the Minister leaves that point, will he clear up a matter that causes me some confusion as a result of what he has just said? What is the connection between the provision of any post offices and universal service provision? I see nothing about buildings or services of that type in the universal service provisions.

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4.30 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, that was exactly the point I sought to make. In this context the commission is concerned with the provision of a universal postal service, not buildings that may require financial assistance. Throughout the debate many noble Lords have said that there should be clarity about responsibilities in this area and that the commission should focus on competitive issues and universal service provision. Therefore, in the context of this Bill it would be a grave mistake to give the commission a financial responsibility which is really that of the Government.

I deal with other issues. I have a great deal of sympathy with noble Lords who seek information and greater clarity in this area, which I shall try to provide at this stage in so far as it is possible to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, spoke about amending the Bill. He did not give a specific reason, other than in the context of the bank. It is not thought that a universal bank will require further primary legislation. Like any other company, the Post Office company will be able to become a bank provided it satisfies the relevant banking legislation. Therefore, I do not believe that at this stage any amendment is required.

I turn to unavoidable closures, which I had hoped was dealt with yesterday in the Statement and in my responses. In the PIU report and Statement it is made clear that we are talking about only two circumstances: first, those cases in which there is no one to carry out the tasks; secondly, those cases where someone runs a post office and decides to retire and there is no building in which to carry on those activities. I believe that those can rightly be described as unavoidable circumstances. Other than that, we have given a clear commitment to keep open all rural post offices which serve a population of 10,000. That is a clear commitment which covers exactly the concerns which have been raised.

As to people voting with their feet, I was guilty of a modest rhetorical flourish. I should have said that people have exercised their right of choice in this matter and an increasing proportion of them, as might be expected, have moved to a credit transfer system. That is one of the problems with which we are concerned. As to the financial side, I can only repeat what I said before. This matter will be set out in the Comprehensive Spending Review, from which it will be seen that this is a serious financial commitment to achieve our aim.

I deal finally with the whole question of the subsidy scheme. That matter must return to this House for an affirmative vote. That is the moment when the House can express a view on the nature and size of the scheme and whether it will achieve what is intended. I have great sympathy with those who want to know at this stage precisely what has been said about the financial side. However, the House will have the opportunity to express its view, and we believe that that is the appropriate way to do it. To insert this amendment and distort the role of the commission, which is to look after the interests of users and to ensure universal

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service provision, and the role of government, which is concerned with the social implications of the Post Office, will lead to great confusion that noble Lords on both sides of the House would not want.

On many occasions it has been said that any financial assistance that is provided should be clearly understood by everyone and not lead to any confusion of roles. While I have a great deal of sympathy for the points made in the debate, I do not believe that this amendment, which is technically deficient, is the way to achieve the intended purpose, and I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.

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