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House of Lords

Thursday, 12th October 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Hereford): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Post Office: German Parcel

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they accept the recommendations of the Audit Commission's report dated 24th August on the acquisition by the Post Office of German Parcel.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, a number of lessons of good practice are set out in the National Audit Office report. I understand that the Public Accounts Committee is to hold a hearing on the NAO report and produce its own recommendations on the basis of that hearing and the report. The Government will respond in the normal way to the report of the Public Accounts Committee via a Treasury Minute. Many of the lessons of good practice highlighted by the NAO, such as the need for access to advice and for appropriate financial disclosure, are already being implemented.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, on Third Reading of the Postal Services Bill on 11th July I told the Minister that his department had agreed with the report of the National Audit Commission on the manner in which the Post Office should deal with acquisitions and disposals. Can the noble Lord explain why his answer then was that he had not seen the report and, therefore, the department could not have agreed with it, even though I had seen the draft NAO report? Can he further explain how on 24th August, at the time of final publication of the report, the same recommendations were made and it was said that the department had agreed with the NAO's arguments? At what stage did the Minister know with what the department was agreeing? Is it usual for the department to reach such agreements in draft reports that the Minister has not seen? Why had the Minister not seen it, and when did he find out?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as it is being suggested that I misled the House, perhaps I may go through the rather grim details of the various stages.

At Report stage on 29th June I said that the NAO was to produce a report but it had still not been finalised. At that stage draft copies had been shown to a number of people, including Sir Michael Scholar two days before. At that stage I said that the Government would put the requirements for disclosure into the articles of association. The report had not been finalised at that stage. At Third Reading on 11th July

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the noble Baroness said that she had a copy of the report and claimed that the DTI had accepted the arguments about disclosure. At that stage Sir Michael Scholar had not commented on the report, and there can be no question of it having been finalised or agreed. He wrote to the NAO on 14th July with his comments and the final report was released on 3rd August. The House will agree that it would be grossly improper for me to quote from an NAO report that had not been finalised at that stage and which was subsequently changed before its publication.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether, had he read the report in detail and it had been finalised by Third Reading of the Postal Services Bill, his response to the noble Baroness and myself would have differed in any way?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the action had already been taken and so I do not believe that it would have been any different. The report had not been finalised and, therefore, it would have been grossly improper to quote from it. Noble Lords will appreciate that the report is agreed by the Permanent Secretary, not by departmental Ministers. It is a matter for the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee, and it is the Permanent Secretary who takes the role of accounting officer.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I should like to press the Minister further. At Report stage the Minister indicated to noble Lords that the report was not available, and that is what the noble Lord is being asked about. I should like to press the Minister on another matter that has not yet been clarified. I refer to approval by the European Commission for the setting up of a universal bank. That question was raised at the time and has not received a satisfactory response. Can the Minister answer that?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I did not say that the report did not exist but that it had not been finalised. The universal bank had nothing to do with that particular debate and was a totally different issue. It was announced in the course of the proceedings but it is not reflected in the Bill.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House what a German parcel is?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I do not know what a German parcel is, but we have bought something called that for £289 million.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: And, my Lords, cheap at the price perhaps!

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the subject of this Question, which is the acquisition of German Parcel, is of vital importance to the new Post Office, as agreed by this House? Does my noble friend also agree that, because

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of the uncertainty about comments relating to the acquisition, it is helpful if a written statement is placed in the Library of the House?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, if it is helpful to noble Lords, I shall set out the sequence of events in a note and place it in the Library of the House.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I return to the subject of my noble friend's Question. The Minister will recall that I also intervened at Third Reading and suggested that the Minister was dancing on the head of a pin. He is now dancing on the point of a pin. At that time my noble friend had a copy of the report which clearly said that the department had told the NAO that it accepted its argument. The Minister said that,

    "when one refers to the department giving authority to the report, that must mean Ministers".--[Official Report, 11/7/00; col. 181.]

Does one conclude that officials did not tell Ministers that they were doing it? Did they tell other Ministers but not the noble Lord, or did the noble Lord forget that the department had made this observation to the NAO? This is a simple question which I do not believe the Minister has addressed.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I said that in general when departments agreed matters it meant that the Minister had to agree it. I should have said more specifically that in this particular case it was the Permanent Secretary as chief accounting officer who would have to agree it with the National Audit Office.

Breast Cancer

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Billingham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What measures they are taking to improve awareness and treatment of breast cancer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the NHS Cancer Plan published on 27th September sets out the measures that the Government are taking to improve awareness and treatment of breast cancer. It is a major programme of action which links prevention, diagnosis, treatment, care and research. A copy is in the Library.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, this is a very important and relevant Question. October has been designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Does my noble friend agree that, looking at the statistics, one great concern is the serious discrepancy in the take-up of breast screening opportunities as between women who are relatively well off, where the take-up is very high, and women who are less well off, particularly those from ethnic minorities? Clearly, that is wrong; it is also deadly. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what

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steps the Government are taking to ensure that all women, irrespective of their backgrounds, and, incidentally, irrespective of their age, take the opportunity to actually visit the van and therefore have an opportunity to save their own lives?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right to point to inequalities in relation to the number of women taking up the opportunity of screening. My understanding is that of the age group who were sent invitations, 76 per cent accepted those invitations. There are issues particularly in relation to members of black and minority ethnic groups. Part of the Government's programme in trying to tackle the problem and encourage more women to have screening is to fund several projects to raise awareness among black minority ethnic groups in places of worship and women's organisations which undertake health work. We also expect all primary care groups to review their own screening coverage rates and, where there are specific problems, to target those members of the population who are not having the tests.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, why is there an age limit for screening when it is known that there is--

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: There is no age limit.

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