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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I have enough work to do without spending my weekends sabotaging the mail of other Peers. There appear to be better ways of spending one's weekend.

It is not a new legislative device for the regulator. This Bill sets up an independent system of regulation now seen in many areas, not least in the utilities legislation passed by the previous administration. The Secretary of State will continue to be answerable to Parliament as regards postal matters. The essence of what the noble Lord said is that we shall not have good performance until we have real competition. That is what the regulator has to do. Once we have that, then all the penalties can be included and standards raised. That is the clear job of the regulator in the circumstances.

I suspect that these amendments are designed to probe the Government's intentions on licensing and raise a number of points which have already been discussed in this House. There is not much between the

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noble Baroness and myself on the points that she raised. There are differences as to the best way in which the assurances she seeks may be achieved.

I take the three points in turn. As regards her first point about minimum standards, the Government fully expect that the Post Office, as and when it has a licence, will have to deliver the same, if not better, standards of delivery. It will be a matter for the regulator to determine exactly what those standards are. The regulator is best placed to do that. Equally, it is also important that the regulator may wish not to impose such onerous requirements on a new entrant who might be operating in a niche market. It may be entirely appropriate in those circumstances to have a different set of service standards. This flexibility would be precluded by the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness.

I now move to the noble Baroness's third point. We debated at some length in Committee the pros and cons of delivery being to a fixed point. I can offer the noble Baroness the same assurance that there is no government proposal, nor on the part of the Post Office, that delivery points should be established other than those that exist now; for example, to follow the manner of the United States or New Zealand. The amendment proposed here also appears restrictive. For example, it would prevent deliveries to the service bay of a building. Neither does it contain the sensible part of the noble Baroness's previous amendment that the postman would not have to deliver where delivery to the front door would place him or her in danger. I make it absolutely clear that it is not for the licensee to decide the standards, but for the regulator. He has clear responsibilities at the service level.

The second point made by the noble Baroness has some merit. However, it merely states the position in law as it stands. The European directive has direct effect here. The UK is a member state and in these circumstances it has to comply with the requirements. Therefore, on first inspection I do not believe that an amendment would be necessary. However, if she is prepared to withdraw the amendment I shall be happy to take the second point away and consider whether an amendment could be usefully added to the Bill at Third Reading. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may clarify the position as regards the answers to my questions. Is the Minister saying that he cannot help me on the present position, let alone on the overall situation because that will be determined by the regulator?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, at present the Post Office has a system of dealing with customer complaints, but there are no formal remedies. Under the Bill the quality of service targets will be set as a condition of the licence. The regulator, the commission and the council will monitor these closely. The commission can issue enforcement orders requiring standards to be met and, if necessary, impose

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financial penalties on the licence holder. Under these new arrangements there is the possibility of taking sanctions if performance rather than standards fails.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I understand very well what the Minister said, particularly about flexibility; namely, that the regulator may wish to make the licence slightly different for new entrants to the market. We on this side of the House certainly would not wish to do anything that interfered with fair competition because that would be totally inappropriate. I presume it is right that if for some reason the regulator was acting in an inappropriate way--not that I suggest he would--there would be some way of handling that situation. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 8:

    Page 9, line 17, at end insert--

("( ) The provisions of a licence may, in particular, require the acceptance of payment for services provided under the licence by cash, cheque, debit card or credit card.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, even at this late stage of the Bill this is an unashamed probing amendment, so the Minister can relax to some extent. It was put to me in conversation recently that it is quite extraordinary in this day and age and with the future Post Office being an all-singing, all-dancing, interwired, Internet and inter-anything organisation, or whatever you like to call it, that modern methods of payment have been unacceptable until now. I am quite prepared for the Minister to tell me that this is the wrong place in the Bill to introduce this amendment because it should not be concerned with a licence. However, I would like him to tell me that in future people will be able to pay, for example, for their road fund licence, TV licence, utility bills, etcetera, with either a debit or credit card. That is the sole purpose of my amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I have listened carefully to what the noble Lord said. I understand his views about this matter, which are not totally in keeping with the modern way of doing things. However, the noble Lord's attempt to set this provision into the Bill is out of proportion to the specific issue that he has raised. It must be remembered that the licences issued by the post services commission are potentially for the entire range of postal services.

The kinds of conditions that the commission might set under its powers in subsection (3) of this clause could run across the whole gamut of the services provided under the licence. In particular, the commission may well set quality of service standards and performance targets for the delivery of mail, a subject which is obviously very dear to the hearts of enormous numbers of users of the postal service.

But we see no need to specify in the Bill the topics on which the commission may lay down conditions. We have required the commission to exercise its function in a manner it considers best to further the interests of users promoting competition wherever appropriate, as

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detailed in Clause 5 of the Bill. The commission will have to consider many important issues. There are many potential conditions that the commission will want to set in the licence. Therefore, I see no point in singling out the means of payment as the second potential condition mentioned on the face of the Bill.

The commission may well decide for itself to lay down requirements about the way in which the postal services might be paid for. It may be that the consumer council for postal services would wish to make representations on that point. If the commission decided that such requirements were appropriate, it could do so within the powers already contained in Clause 13(3) after consulting the prospective licensee as required by subsection (4) of this clause. Above all, this is a commercial matter for the Post Office and the future post office company. There are significant charges for each credit card transaction. For many of the comparatively low value transactions that take place in post offices it may not be worth while. Having said that, other commercial arguments could be applied.

I have a certain sympathy with the amendment, but I believe that to put this particular requirement into the Bill would be inappropriate. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for "a certain sympathy with the amendment". My amendment was deliberately drawn widely so that those items of lesser value can continue to be paid for in cash or perhaps by cheque. At the moment, as noble Lords know, everything has to be paid for by cash or cheque. When I paid for my road fund licence recently in a village not far from Taunton, the good lady behind the counter in the franchised post office, blinked when I produced the money in one pound coins. I believe that I should not have needed to do that.

I wonder how far the "certain sympathy" expressed by the Minister extends. Does he foresee a time when the larger transactions, like the ones that I mentioned--TV licence, road fund licence, utility bills and so on--will be paid for by credit card, or will the damning hand of the Treasury zero in on that? As the Minister clearly said, a charge is levied by credit card companies. Against that, there is the fact that this new all-singing, all-dancing Post Office will, according to the PIU report, also incorporate a new bank with the working title of the universal bank. Presumably, that will not only issue credit and debit cards, but will also have to accept credit and debit cards. Does the Minister agree that that is a future that we can see within the environs of the Post Office? I hope he does. I see him nodding. Is that a significant nod, or a "taking in what I am saying" nod?

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