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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am glad it was the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who used the word "unnecessary" in this context. I believe it takes the issue one stage further. There is an original point which covers this, perhaps not as fully as the noble Lord would like. We were hoping to take it one stage further in terms of collecting information from abroad. However, if it is now felt that that is unnecessary, I do not want to push the point. It will be for the Opposition to say that it is unnecessary.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I was described as "modest", which I found very pleasant. I am also extremely cautious. Insisting upon my amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, would clearly like me to do, would be to push caution to a dangerous limit.

I make only one point. It is in my mind to table an amendment at Third Reading which removes the words,

from this part of the Bill. The Minister drew my attention to another place where I can remove it as well; namely, at the beginning of Clause 44. That is not a threat. But I shall consider that possibility carefully over the coming weeks. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville moved Amendment No. 11:

    Page 29, line 9, at end insert--

("( ) So far as the Commission considers it practicable to do so with a view to facilitating the exercise of its functions, it shall, in particular, collect information which enables comparisons to be made between the efficiency and economy of different postal operators (whether in the United Kingdom, other member States or elsewhere).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1106

Clause 54 [Exercise of functions: general]:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 12:

    Page 35, line 1, at end insert ("and

(iv) a committee for England,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 12, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 13; they are part and parcel of the same thing.

In Committee my noble friend Lady Miller withdrew a similar amendment on the basis that the Minister would look at the matter again because there was what he called "strong feeling" in the Chamber on the subject. With her agreement I am returning to the charge. When I read Hansard I detected a misunderstanding of what I in particular and many others were actually intending by my noble friend's amendment at that time.

Clause 54 concerns the function of the new Post Office consumer body, and subsection (4) talks about what arrangements there will be for that; namely, that committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shall be established and that area sub-committees may be established as well.

All well and good; I would be the first to agree with that. It is clearly up to the council to sub-regionalise, if it wants to. As the Minister said, recent history should not be lightly set aside. Again I agree with the noble Lord. It is when the clause considers England that the snag occurs. Here the formulation is much weaker and the Bill says that the council "may"--I stress that word--

    "establish one or more committees for, or for any areas within, England".

For many years now I have listened to, argued about and, on occasion, defended the use of the word "may" rather than "shall" in legislation, especially where the draftsman has used "may" in such a way that it really means "shall". This is not such an occasion. Here the meaning is totally transparent. There is to be a different treatment in England as compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. Why?

In Committee, the Minister said,

    "From a practical point of view, England is a larger country than the others and representation by a number of committees for different areas within England may be more appropriate than a single regional committee".--[Official Report, 8/6/00; col. 1343.]

Yes, of course; but that is no reason why, as in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, there should not be a committee with sub-committees for the various regions. After all, Scotland is a large landmass. I could get into trouble with the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, who--perhaps fortunately for me--is not at present in the Chamber, if I called it a "region". However, it is certainly a large landmass. It is quite likely that sub-committees will be set up in Scotland. Therefore, why not here?

The Minister went on to say that Clause 54 also requires the council to maintain at least one office in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is true, but it also allows the English office to be in limbo with no committee at all to support it. The latter is very unlikely to happen, but, under the phraseology of the Bill, it could just occur. No doubt the Minister

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1107

will call this one of my "extreme examples"; indeed, for the avoidance of doubt, it was meant to be an extreme example. I do not believe that that could happen but, in theory, it could.

I am sure that the Minister has thought again about this, as he said he would. I hope that his thoughts are rather more positive than those he expressed in Committee. I trust that he now agrees that there must be a committee for England. I know that between the Committee stage and today the Minister sent my noble friend Lady Miller a letter. I do not know whether the noble Lord copied it to me, but I certainly did not receive a copy until this morning. Doubtless he will base his speech on the arguments set out in his letter. If so, I must warn him that I have now read, marked, learnt and inwardly digested the contents of that letter. Therefore, it will be very much easier for me to respond to him when I conclude the debate. I beg to move.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. We had a rather unsatisfactory debate in Committee. I cannot remember whether it was the Minister or his colleague who insisted on answering rather a different question to the one we had raised. It was not about the number of sub-committees and whether or not we should decide how many regional committees there should be for England but about an extraordinarily simple point--namely, why the word "shall" has been used in relation to the other parts of the United Kingdom, while only the word "may" applies to England. It is as simple as that.

I see no reason why there should be conditionality attached to England but none attached to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. I am not arguing for hundreds of committees to be set up; indeed, I am no great fan of committees. I just do not understand why there should be an element of conditionality attached to England and not to the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I also support my noble friend's amendment. I tabled a similar amendment in Committee, but withdrew it although there was great support all around the House. The Minister acknowledged that fact and said that as there was such strong feeling, he would take the matter away for reconsideration. We had hoped that he would return to us and agree that as the word "shall" has been used in connection with the setting up of committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the word "may", the same should also apply to a committee for England.

I can confirm that I received a letter from the Minister on this point, but, regrettably, I was away for the whole of last week and only read the letter this morning when I found it on my desk. That is when I showed the letter to my noble friend who has moved this amendment. I am most grateful to my noble friend for telling the House that he has gone into the detail so that, in winding-up the debate, he can rebut those arguments if that is the line that the Minister takes.

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1108

It seemed to me that the Minister's argument was that, as this provision has appeared in other Bills, we must have consistency. The situation is becoming quite bad. If this continues, we shall really be in trouble. Therefore, I very much look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say in response to the Minister.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Bill has been worded in this way because we felt that the decision as to whether to have a single committee for England, or a series of regional committees, should be left to the discretion of the council. It was always understood that it would be one or the other. As I said on 8th June, it is interesting to note that not one of the respondents to the consultation on the future committee structure for postal services suggested a single committee covering the whole of England. The reason for that is probably rather clear: the population of England is simply too large to be covered by one committee in this sense.

If the noble Lord's concern is that there would be no committee, I should be glad to take the matter away to ascertain whether we could introduce an amendment to make it clear that there would be either a committee, or regional committees, to meet the needs of the people. However, it is rather curious to propose an amendment that would require the committee to have a particular structure that was not what consumers wanted.

If the noble Lord is truly concerned that nothing would be set up, we can meet that need, while leaving it to the discretion of the council. We shall consider whether we can draft an amendment to achieve that end. However, if the aim is that there should be a single committee, we must resist that proposition on the grounds that we would like that decision to be left to the discretion of the council, after consultation with its users. Indeed, in that case, the council may decide upon something completely different.

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