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Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, if this is indeed the final point of the long saga that started in 2000, it would be wrong to let this moment pass without saying some words over the corpse of a wonderful organisation that existed for more than 300 years. I find it offensive for the service that I joined—I declare an interest as a telegraph boy at the age of 14—known as the Post Office, now to be referred to as,

A universal service provider? Recent decisions of that provider would make one wonder what on earth the Government were doing when they created the public limited company from the renowned publicly owned corporation. A universal service provider that shuts down an underground railway and throws more traffic on the streets of London? A provider that moves mail from trains to lorries? This is a sad day and it would be wrong for this moment to pass without my once again—the House is probably fed up to the back teeth with hearing this—complaining about what my Government have done to a wonderful organisation. It is sad that the words "Post Office" are to be replaced with the almost offensive description, the "provider".

Given recent events, the present management structure, created by my Government, appears incapable of providing a universal service. Its methods during the past two weeks are reminiscent of the Stasi in East Germany. Only this week, we have seen evidence of local managers being asked to buy disposable cameras to photograph staff who may be talking to casual workers and a whole range of

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guidelines on how to entrap decent people who are doing their job. Universal service provider? I hope that the Government are ashamed of what they have done. Even if I am the only voice to say this in the House, I want to place on record my sadness at seeing the words "Post Office" go and "universal service provider" put in their place. I apologise for taking the House's time.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, made his opinions—a few of which I share—vehemently known during the passage of the Post Office Act 2000.

The order refers to the Post Office (Subway) Act 1966. As I understand it, part of that Act concerns the Post Office underground railway running between Mount Pleasant and Paddington railway station which, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, reminded us, the Post Office corporation—whatever it is now called—has now in its wisdom decided is surplus to requirements. Some months ago, the All-Party Rail Freight Group visited that railway and discovered exactly what were the problems, but also that it was still in working order and could be used, although the law would have to be changed if it were to be used for any other purpose. Can the Minister update us on that and tell us whether any firm has approached the Post Office either to use the railway under licence or to purchase it for the transport of goods—which is currently not allowed—underground along Oxford Street, for example, or anywhere along the route?

Lord Newby: My Lords, a debate on the Post Office discussing the issues raised by the order is fiddling while Rome burns. In the longer term, the Post Office has been under mounting threat from e-mail, text messaging and the introduction of competition, but the recent industrial action has turned the clock back a long way in the methods employed by management and arguably, to a certain extent, by groups of workers.

I was pleased yesterday to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, has been re-harnessed to the traces to go back to the Post Office to work with both sides to try to bring some order to the chaos of industrial relations that still pertains at the Post Office. We must wish him well and hope that we have a better chance to discuss the Post Office in your Lordships' House in future. But for today, we support the order.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for those contributions and did not think that even on these technical matters we could refer to the Post Office without some more general issues emerging in this short debate.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that there is nothing of fiddling while Rome burns here. After all, the charge against Nero was that that was all that he was doing and that he was even delighting in doing that irrelevant thing while the calamity was going on around him. I think that the noble Lord will recognise that those in the Post Office and the DTI have been busy on a whole range of other issues, many related

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directly to our present discontents while, at the same time, a small amount of activity has been directed to the tidying up order.

I hear what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, says. It would have been difficult to have provided what he recommended—some kind of catch-all element in the original Act to allow for all cross-references to be incorporated. As I remember, the Bill was the subject of fairly intensive debate during its passage through both Houses. Rightly, Members of both Houses are insistent that there is precision in legislation avoiding such catch-all phrases—which, after all, can in other circumstances be interpreted as a let-out for Ministers and the executive. So provision for subsequent orders had to be made—and two such subsequent orders have had to be made—for the best reasons of parliamentary scrutiny. I suppose that I am putting my head on the line by asserting as strongly as I can that this is the last of these tidying up orders. I carefully read the previous debate and noticed that my noble friend Lord Sainsbury did not say that then; how wise he was. He may regard me as a rather more foolish substitute, but I am assured that all the work has now been done to examine every possible area of cross-reference. We should not need another such technical order.

I anticipated that the subject could not be debated without the presence of my noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead. I would not presume to anticipate his remarks, but I could probably have gauged their tenor, not least because, like the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I read the reports of debates on the Bill in 2000. I know how trenchantly my noble friend criticised the legislation in principle. He remains irreconcilable to the new order. That is his right and a tribute to his consistency.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, will recognise that we all appreciate that the past couple of weeks have been very difficult for the management and workforce of Royal Mail. No doubt, mistakes have been made. The two sides are now together within a framework in which we hope a just solution will be reached. We have hopes for the future, against the background to which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred.

My noble friend Lord Sawyer is now actively engaged by Royal Mail to explore further why there was such a breakdown in relations, leading to the most recent disputes. We hope that he will be as constructive and successful in the next few weeks in achieving prolonged industrial peace in Royal Mail as he has been in improving relations since he took up the assignment two or three years ago.

I recognise the criticism expressed by my noble friend Lord Clarke. No doubt, he will pursue further opportunities to discuss Royal Mail issues in the House. I look forward to such an occasion, when, I have no doubt, my noble friend will express trenchant views, whatever the situation at the time.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is right in mentioning the Post Office railway and the fact that legislative change would be needed. It is in working

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order. I was aware that a group visited the railway to consider that aspect. The noble Lord is also right to indicate that the asset has been used solely for post. It is a unique and interesting facility, and we would lose its advantages at our peril. I cannot give the noble Lord any real reassurance today, as I have not been briefed fully on the matter. He has caught me by surprise, but I would be happy to respond more fully in writing. The whole House will have considerable sympathy with his views. I hope, therefore, that I can give a positive response on how we will use that unique asset. I have no doubt that there would be attendant difficulties with the operation of a rail link built for such a specific purpose.

I hope that the House feels that I have dealt with the points raised. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Dental Auxiliaries (Amendment) Regulations 2003

11.55 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House's agreement is sought to proposals to increase the registration fees paid by dental auxiliaries to the General Dental Council from 25 to 68.

Two classes of dental auxiliary are covered by the regulations: dental hygienists and dental therapists. They may practise only if they are registered with the General Dental Council. Their annual registration fee is, in effect, a licence to practise. By virtue of Section 45(7) of the Dentists Act 1984, Parliament is required to ensure that increases in fees are justified.

There are some 3,900 practising dental hygienists. Working under the direction of a dentist, they can clean, scale and polish teeth; provide local infiltration analgesia; apply prophylactic materials such as fluoride gels and fissure sealants; and give oral hygiene advice. Until recently, dental therapists have had a lower profile. Currently there are only about 370 in practice, and, like hygienists, they work under the direction of a dentist.

Dental therapists may extract deciduous teeth, do simple fillings, give local anaesthetics, undertake cleaning, scaling and polishing and give oral hygiene instruction. Originally, dental therapists could work only in hospitals and community dental services, but, in June 2002, we removed that restriction. As a result they may now work in all fields of dentistry, including NHS and private high street dental practices.

In essence, the fee increase is required to contribute to the costs incurred by the General Dental Council in modernising the regulation of dentistry. The GDC has two main objectives: the introduction of an effective fitness to practise regime for dentists and dental

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auxiliaries; and the extension of regulation to other classes of dental auxiliary, including dental nurses and dental technicians.

Unfortunately, those necessary reforms are costly. Half a million pounds is required for the development of computer systems to keep records on the new registrants. More administrative staff are needed to oversee the registration process, and the GDC must engage lawyers for hearings of conduct cases or appeals when a decision is challenged. As in other fields such as law and architecture, membership of a profession with major public responsibilities carries an overhead due to the cost of regulation.

In his report of the public inquiry into children's heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Professor Sir Ian Kennedy said:

    "An effective system of professional regulation must be owned collectively. Further it needs an independence from the professions and from government which allows it to act in the public interest".

The General Dental Council's reforms should be seen in that context.

We are working on an order under Section 60 of the Health Act 1999 to amend the Dentists Act. It will specify that the main objective of the General Dental Council is the promotion of high standards throughout the profession and in education and training. The order will also empower the GDC to register the other classes of dental auxiliary, including dental technicians and dental nurses. Registration will make it a statutory requirement for those staff to obtain formal qualifications and empower the GDC to investigate and intervene where fitness to practise is in question.

We hope to publish a draft of the Section 60 order for consultation before the end of the year so that, subject to Parliamentary approval, it may come into force during 2004. The proposals before the House are necessary for the modernisation of the regulation of dentistry. I recognise that those are significant increases and that they exceed the rate of inflation since 1999. But it is not only the dental auxiliaries who are charged higher fees; the registration fee for doctors has increased from 80 to 290 since 1999 and that for dentists has increased from 135 to 300.

Dental auxiliaries earn less than dentists, and that is still reflected in the lower fee that they are charged. However, they are not immune from the regulatory reforms necessary to protect the public, and it is right that they should contribute to the cost of those reforms. I hope that my explanation has been helpful and that noble Lords will approve the regulations.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Warner.)

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