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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the universal service provision is, and has been for generations, about the delivery of letters. It has nothing to do with the payment of welfare benefits through sub-post offices. That is not to say that we do not think the payment of welfare benefits through sub-post offices is extremely important. That is the way we see the process going. That is what the Statement yesterday was about. It is simply a matter of fact that the universal service provision is, and always has been, a requirement about the delivery of letters. We envisage welfare benefits continuing to be paid through sub-post offices. That is a quite separate matter. We think that right and we hope that it will continue in future.

The amount is 70p for a banking transaction from Post Office Counters Limited, and 13p for a benefit book transaction. The exact sums which sub-post offices will receive will be subject, as in the past, to negotiations between Post Office Counters Limited and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. We can give no guarantee as to the number of those transactions. That will depend, as always, on the number of users and customers who go to the post offices to receive those benefits. People may choose to go elsewhere. We cannot guarantee the number of those payments.

I would hope that Amendment No. 39, standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will be withdrawn. The amendment is not appropriate in the light of the Government's announcement yesterday of the results of the PIU study. We have given clear undertakings that there will be financial assistance for post offices; and that benefits will be paid in cash at post offices now and in the future if benefit recipients choose that method.

I assure the noble Baroness, as I did the Committee, that designated proxies will still be recognised under any new arrangements introduced in future.

The amendment is based on the supposition that there will be a single scheme for the provision of financial assistance for public post offices. There may be more than one. This is over a long period. For example, we might want a separate scheme for the provision of IT facilities at post offices. I do not see why access to the Internet should become embroiled in the issue of benefit payments. We want the post office

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to be a point not only at which benefits can be collected, important as that is, but also a point of access for a range of government and other services.

I remind the House that the Bill is intended to last for a generation. Over that period of time there may be a number of schemes targeting different types of post offices or certain services which do not have any direct bearing on the question of benefits. This scheme would fetter unnecessarily this discretion within the Bill. Any scheme will have to come before Parliament for approval by affirmative resolution. There will be plenty of opportunity, therefore, to comment on the merits or demerits of a specific scheme.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I am somewhat disappointed that he is unable to give fuller details on the financial implications as regards welfare benefits. I thank the noble Lord for his clarification of the 70p for a banking transaction and of the 13p to which I referred. The subject is of great concern to many people who receive benefits and to the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses whose livelihoods depend on such payments. As the noble Lord knows well, some 40 per cent of their income comes from those payments.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell--he is no longer in his place--pointed out that instead of saying, "You can have payment at the post office but you can choose another way", by informing people about the welfare benefit payments the Government tend to promote the fact that individuals can have ACT. We would prefer automatic payment through the post office with the ability to opt out if individuals wish to have ACT. That is where the Government take a different line from us.

At the end of the day, the issue involves individual choice. I am grateful for the Minister's comments about cash payments. I shall read Hansard carefully. I thank the noble Lord for his response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 105 [Application of customs and excise enactments to certain postal packets]:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 40:

    Page 63, line 43, at end insert--

("(6) The power to make regulations under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument.
(7) No regulations shall be made under this section unless--
(a) a draft of the regulations has been laid before the House of Commons together with a reasoned statement from the Treasury confirming that, in its opinion, the regulations, if made, would not distort competition in the provision of postal services; and
(b) the draft regulations are approved by resolution of that House.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I speak also to Amendment No. 51 which is consequential.

When we last debated this clause in great detail I indicated to the Minister that I would return to the issue. Those who briefed me did not agree with the

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answer. I now put forward a further probing amendment which requires regulations under Clause 105 to be approved by the House of Commons, as they are a fiscal measure, before coming into effect and would require the Treasury in seeking that approval to confirm that the regulations would not distort competition in postal services.

I could speak again at length on the amendment but I think that it would be unwise. I know that the Minister is well aware of the concerns. We have been in correspondence. In its simplest form the amendment seeks to ensure that there is no undue advantage between Parcelforce and express couriers in their dealings with Customs and Excise when sending parcels abroad. The Minister has replied in a detailed letter addressing some of the questions I posed in Committee. His answer was faxed to my house and as I did not return home until 10.30 p.m. I did not have the opportunity to give the response the attention it undoubtedly deserves.

His argument centres around the fact that there are two totally different types of traffic: one by Parcelforce, and another by express couriers where time is the critical issue. On 16th June in a Question for Written Answer I asked the Minister to identify Parcelforce's traffic so that we can see how much it differs from those of the express couriers. I maintain that the two types of traffic are identical and, therefore, that all operations exporting parcels abroad should be treated in the same way by Customs and Excise. I have received an advertisement from Parcelforce which reinforces my view that it is the same kind of traffic. Tomorrow I shall post it to the Minister. I do not think that there is a distinction.

What has the Minister to say on that and other issues raised? I beg to move.

Lord Freeman: My Lords, I speak as the Honorary President of the British International Freight Association whose attention has been drawn to the issues raised by my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon. I associate myself with her remarks which were of a probing nature. The issues are whether there is actually, and whether there is perceived to be, a distortion in competition. They can be resolved simply because if there is no distortion in competition, as the Government have argued, there can be no problems in ensuring that Parcelforce and the public sector abide by and are governed by exactly the same Customs and Excise regulations and new procedures as is the private sector.

One understands the reasons for the actions of Customs and Excise in introducing new electronic systems governing the import and export of express parcels of certain categories of freight. It saves staff needs and one does not necessarily argue with that. My argument and that of the association of which I am president--many of the companies in the association are small by comparison with the large international couriers--is that in this tough world the Post Office and Parcelforce are intent on entering, in the sense of developing greater commercial freedom and behaving

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like the private sector, they should be governed by exactly the same pressures and rules which apply to the private sector.

I have not had the opportunity of benefiting from the late-night fax which my noble friend Lady Miller received last night; nor have I had an opportunity to understand the Government's arguments or to discuss the matter with my noble friend. However, I look forward to the Minister's response in trying to allay the fears of members of my association.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, Clause 105 applies Customs legislation to postal packets. It re-enacts and updates the provisions contained in Section 16 of the Post Office Act 1953. It gives the Treasury, on the recommendation of the Secretary of State and the commissioners of Customs and Excise, the power to make regulations specifying how the legislation should apply. This power has been amended only in so far as it is necessary to reflect the changing market conditions by changing references to the Post Office to postal operator. It is intended only to maintain the powers that Customs and Excise currently enjoy and operate.

Two issues arise from the way in which the system is operated. The first is the requirement of further information. Customs are clear that the information called for will in no way exceed that provided at present and is the minimum required under EC agreements.

The provision prior to export of an eight-digit tariff code for consignments valued at more than £600 was a bone of contention, but it has now been agreed that a good plain language description of the goods will also be acceptable. Exports declared using the plain language description will not be disadvantaged.

The second issue relates to the question of whether there is unfair treatment. I do not believe that there is. Customs' treatment of the two types of traffic must be viewed in the round. For imports, the express carriers have been approved to use simplified procedures which allow them to clear their goods within one hour of arrival. Postal packages chargeable with duty would normally have to wait several hours to be cleared and at times as much as two or three days. Express carriers offer a time critical service at premium rates, whereas postal rates are lower and time of delivery less certain. Customs' treatment of these two types of traffic in part reflects the needs of the trade. Express carriers should appreciate that point.

I have examined the issue and believe that it is fair in the circumstances. However, I shall of course look at any material which the noble Baroness provides. On that basis, I ask her to withdraw her amendment.

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