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House of Lords

Wednesday, 17th July 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Post Office and Railways

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What evaluation they have made of the relative merits of running the Post Office and the railways primarily as public services with appropriate business disciplines or primarily as businesses which provide a public service; and what was the outcome of any such evaluation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Post Office is a public limited company wholly owned by the Government. Network Rail will be a private regulated utility with members rather than shareholders. Both are legitimate structures appropriate for the specific circumstances.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very precise reply. Does he agree that on this issue, and more widely, there is a cultural crisis in this country because the primary purpose of the private sector is to produce profitability and a good return to shareholders and the primary purpose of public services is cost-effectively to provide the best possible public services? There is not much evidence of success in a happy marriage between the two. Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will give this matter attention and give a strategic lead? If good use is to be made of the Chancellor's Statement this week—which we all applaud and welcome—we must promote a concept of public service as one of the highest callings and vocations in the nation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I rather feared that this was a philosophical question and that my noble friend would not be satisfied with practical answers. The Post Office has the structure it has because it had to be rescued from the worst possible form of public ownership—in other words, with no commercial incentives whatever. Network Rail will have the structure it will have because it has had to be rescued from the worst possible form of privatisation.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords—

Lord Ezra: My Lords, if my noble friend will wait a moment. I served for many years successively in the public and the private sectors, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that the prime motivation in the public sector was the concept of service and in the private sector profitability and efficiency. Do the Government consider not only in relation to the Post Office and the railways—to which the noble Lord,

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Lord Judd, referred—but also in relation to health and education into which so much more money has been put, that they have managed to find a way of reconciling these two motivations?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I believe that that is the implication of what I said in the first instance. There are different structures for these two forms of rescue. They are legitimately different in the sense that there are different requirements of them. But it is true that in both cases we must marry the advantages of business experience and responsibility to customers with the ideals of public service, to which my noble friend, Lord Judd, referred.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, could I ask the noble Lord, apart from appropriate business disciplines, whether the Government are in any way concerned with the continuous provision of public services?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am not sure that I understand that question. Public services will have to continue to be provided. I do not know what I am supposed to be concerned about.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what arrangements have been made in relation to the Post Office for consultation with appropriate organisations? During a recent debate on Consignia we were assured that consultations would proceed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords and consultations are proceeding. Consignia—or, as I prefer to call it, the Post Office—will continue to perform the functions which were set out for it in the Postal Services Act 2000. It has Postcomm as a very powerful regulator to ensure that it maintains the universal service obligation, to regulate its prices and to promote greater competition.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister think that the decision by the Post Office—as it is now called—to charge both the sender and the recipient of mail if it is received at a time which is consistent with doing a job such as noble Lords do in this House, is a sign that the rescue he referred to has succeeded?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I suspect an element of that is the management of the Post Office flying a kite. No such charges have been agreed.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister understand—sorry, no do come in. You had difficulty with one of your own members before.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, such kindness and courtesy is a feature of this House. Will the

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Minister admit that all the time that the Post Office was a public service it provided a good public service and paid money to the Treasury every year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that was partly the trouble. Yes, it did provide a good public service but also through its external financing limits far too much money from its surpluses were paid over to the Treasury with the result that there was long-term under-investment in the kind of mechanisation—to put it no higher than that—which was necessary for the Post Office to compete in the longer term. The freeing-up of those gilts, which was in the Secretary of State's announcement, is essential for the future survival of the Post Office.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am glad that I allowed the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, to precede me because I am very sympathetic towards the question that he asked. Is my noble friend aware that people cannot understand why the Post Office, which ran a magnificent service for 150 years at a very cheap price and with absolute service to every part of this country, now has to open itself to competition? Is it not a fact that the reason for this problem is that the Post Office was reorganised in the way it has been reorganised to allow competition into the service in accordance with the single European market and the Single European Act? Is that not the problem?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, it has nothing to do with the Single European Act.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, will the Minister give us an assurance that there will not be two levels of delivery, depending on whether people have made a pre-payment? If that were the case, Nos. 25, 27 and 29 in a street could receive a delivery at seven o'clock, while Nos. 26, 28 and 30 could receive one at nine o'clock. That does not sound efficient, does it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, simply repeats the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. There are no firm plans to charge anyone at any time of the day. The matter is being considered by the Post Office.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we are now into the ninth minute.

Diet and Behaviour

2.45 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a trustee of Natural Justice, a charity concerned with the physical and social causes of offending behaviour.

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The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to support the work of the charity Natural Justice and its research into the effect of poor nutrition on behaviour.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, both the Prison Service and the Home Office facilitated the original research project carried out by Natural Justice at Aylesbury young offender institution. While the study demonstrated that nutritional supplements had a positive effect on behaviour, the present pressures on the prison population mean that it is not currently possible to provide the practical support required to facilitate further research.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Can I take it from that that the Government accept that there is a connection between diet and offending behaviour? In the young offender institution at Aylesbury, when a large number of prisoners were given dietary supplements, offending behaviour of the most serious type declined by almost 40 per cent. Does that not have the most serious and important implications for society as a whole and immediate implications for the management of prisons and the cost thereof? Is it not therefore very much in the interests of the Home Office to facilitate such research as much as it possibly can by allowing us access to prisons so that we can replicate the research that has already been carried out?

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