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11 Jun 2008 : Column 575

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in any event we cannot begin to introduce a full programme of rail electrification before 2014, because at the moment the priority is to ensure that we increase capacity to meet the extra demand that passengers are making on the rail network. In the interim, we must direct our resources to ensuring that any programme of electrification following on from 2014 is thorough and in the right place.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, my noble friend inadvertently overlooked answering the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Faulkner, who specifically wanted to know whether the Government will take account of the increase in oil prices. Surely the answer is, yes, they will take account of it. Is the Minister aware that, only the other day, our noble friend Lord Davies said in answer to a Written Question that I had asked about how much extra revenue there would be from the increased oil prices that he could not answer the Question, which is rather different from what the Minister has just told the noble Lord, Lord Lawson?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I find that hard to believe. My noble friend Lord Davies is extremely good at replying to Questions. I thought that I had given the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, an answer to his Question. I indeed look forward, as does the department, to a time when we will see increased electrification of the network, because of the many benefits that it brings.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome the fact that an increase in oil prices makes nuclear generation even cheaper and more acceptable. The use of base-load CO2-free nuclear toward an all-electric economy, with electric lighting, heating and trains—and with electric cars around the corner—could be the salvation not only of this nation but, if we take a 50-year view, of the world’s energy problems.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am glad to hear that there is a nuclear enthusiast on the Conservative Benches.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that transport costs both for passengers and for freight would be considerably less if the Government reduced the revenue that they are taking on oil to an extent commensurate with what they were anticipating they would receive before the price rises? Why do the Government not cut that tax in order to make life easier for people in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not the Treasury spokesman, but I believe that this Government have a good record in ensuring that we have a fair tax take. Our good record on that stands fair inspection in comparison with the record of the previous Government.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, in Hansard at column WA59 on 12 December last year, the Government told us that on a high scenario the oil price might be as much as $70 a barrel. Is general government policy still predicated on that price? If not, what price does the Minister expect in future years—in, say, 2010?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it would be foolish indeed for me to begin speculating on the price of oil in another 12 months. We err on the side of caution when we make our estimates, which is a wise approach.

Post Offices: Closures

3.22 pm

Lord Rix asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government continue to disagree strongly with the claims being made in relation to post offices through the attempts at judicial review. They will continue to defend their position, and consequently see no reason to require Post Office Ltd to delay the implementation of its network change programme. Suspension would bring uncertainty for sub-postmasters and customers alike, and add significant costs to Post Office Ltd. It would therefore not be appropriate to suspend the closure programme.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Are not the closures completely at odds with many of the Government’s stated objectives of reducing social exclusion among old people, especially people with disabilities, who should of course be protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005? Furthermore, what about curbing carbon emissions? I should have thought that the buses that will be taking protesting pensioners to far-flung post offices would count for the Government in that regard. Also, if the Government lose out on the judicial review, which I believe will take place in October, instigated, incidentally, by two disabled pensioners, Jonathan Coe and Judy Brown, will not the cost of reinstating 2,500 post offices outweigh the cost of keeping them open until the result of the review is known?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Post Office is obliged to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act and intends to do so—and the Government will insist that that is the case. But the noble Lord will recognise the obvious fact that usage of post offices is declining at a very significant rate indeed. Only last year, eight out of 10 pensioners had their payments made direct and not through post offices; this year it is nine out of 10. The simple fact of the matter is that people are making their decisions on their own account, which is severely affecting the business of post offices. That is bound to lead to some reductions in the number of post offices.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, as this is a DBERR Question, may we on these Benches say how sorry we are to hear of the sickness of the noble Lord, Lord Jones? We wish him a swift recovery. Nobody could be a more enthusiastic and energetic salesman, and the House is the poorer for his absence. I shall miss him tomorrow very much on the Energy Bill, which we on these Benches regard as so important for this country.

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Does not the recent accidental publication of a list of post offices earmarked for closure reveal that the consultation process is actually a sham?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments about my noble friend and, of course, we all join in wishing him a speedy recovery—and I most of all, as an inadequate substitute on this Question.

The Post Office will fulfil its obligations on consultation and they will affect the decisions on particular post offices. That is the responsibility of the Post Office. But we should recognise that from 1999 to 2005, to help the Post Office adapt to market changes, we committed £2 billion. We have committed a further £1.7 billion up to 2011 to protect the social role of the network, which I know the whole House values. That does not alter the fact, as I have said, that due to the change in consumer demand, some post offices will inevitably close.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, in relation to the £1.7 billion for those remaining 11,500 post offices, will my noble friend note with sadness that shadow person Alan Duncan has failed to commit any incoming Conservative Government to support that match funding? Will my noble friend concentrate particularly on the concept of the one-stop shop in our smaller communities, such as villages, whereby we can collocate public services such as post offices in one venue, such as a church, or a local pub, library or shop? We need to be visionary about this.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that latter point, which is a constructive one on how we can provide postal services, not necessarily at permanent post offices but through different arrangements, such as the one-stop shop.

On the issue of whether the Conservative Opposition are anything else except critical and are never constructive, I am sure that the House is the best judge of that.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, is it not true that the reason for fewer customers using the post offices is that they are not selling things such as motor taxation or television licences, so people cannot go there and get those things? We stress the importance of strong communities as a bulwark against the demise of law and order. Is it not true that the post office is at the heart of the community and for that reason should be defended?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, necessary post office services are important to communities. That is why, as I have indicated, the Government have put £1.7 billion into protecting the role of Post Office Ltd. The noble Lord says that people cannot go to post offices for these other services, but they can. The difference is that they do not do so because pensioners have their pensions paid directly into their bank accounts.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, when the Postal Services Bill was in this House, I was leading for it. I remember saying to the Minister, who is not the Minister on the Front Bench at this time, that taking away the payment of pensions through post offices was the beginning of the end for post offices. If I may

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follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, post offices in country areas provide an important service. Does the Minister not agree that getting your pension through the bank is different? You do not then go to the post office for other services, such as bread and all the other things that are sold there. It is an enormous pity that a service offered throughout the country has been ruined for everybody.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness must accept that the pattern of consumption of Post Office services has changed. To take the obvious point, why are we providing the opportunity for people to renew their car tax online or by telephone? It is easier for the consumer; the take-up is significant. Of course that has an impact on the Post Office, but is the noble Baroness really suggesting that we should freeze in time all services provided by the Post Office, in order that its business should continue, while consumers’ interests are set, relatively, at nought?

The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we are out of time.

Pensions Bill

3.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Pensions Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 65

Schedule 1 Clauses 66 to 88Schedule 2Clause 89 Schedule 3 Clauses 90 to 99Schedule 4Clauses 100 to 103Schedules 5 and 6Clauses 104 and 105Schedule 7Clauses 106 to 108Schedule 8Clauses 109 to 119Schedule 9Clauses 120 to 122.—(Lord McKenzie of Luton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

European Union (Amendment) Bill

3.33 pm

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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Clause 8 [Commencement]:

Lord Howell of Guildford moved Amendment No. 29:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that in Amendment No. 32 in my name and that of other noble Lords, I have this time got the Welsh language right and that all the words in that wonderful tongue are correct.

This debate starts with something of a mystery. As we have argued and debated our way through the text of the treaty and the Bill, most of us can see—and it becomes clearer page by page—that the words are almost identical to those of the former constitutional treaty. In most places they are absolutely identical. The constitutional treaty met a sticky end when it was voted down in referenda in the Netherlands and France some years ago. The mystery is this: if our eyes can see the identical words, how is it that, while we see one thing, Ministers insist on seeing something quite different? Of course, the answer requires no detective work at all. We do not need Hercule Poirot to see exactly what has happened. The treaty drafters and this Government have rather cleverly achieved an illusion by using a methodological device to argue that the constitutional concept has been abandoned. That is the position of the Government as I understand it.

This switch is obviously ingenious and delights all the Sir Humphreys, but that view has virtually no support Europe-wide. In fact, almost all Europe's leaders have been frank and candid about what has been done and about the digital enhancement that has taken place to make the text look different. The only body that is constantly quoted as insisting on the difference is the Dutch Council of State. Throughout our debates, that body has been paraded as a fig leaf for the apologists, but when I came to look at the details of its report to the Netherlands Government, even that august body revealingly let slip in that report—should your Lordships be interested, it is on page 9 and again on pages and 10 and 14—that the Lisbon treaty's goals are,

and that the differences with the constitutional treaty, which was turned down, amount to no more than “shifts in emphasis” and the “abolition of symbols”.

The truth is that the treaty and the Bill are the outcome of weak negotiation by a weak and failing Government propped up, of course, by the Liberal Democrat Party. The treaty is crammed with measures that the Government earlier fought desperately to reject. Quite aside from the Bill, the treaty itself and the negotiation give us a very poor deal indeed. As someone said the other day, not since the Convention of Cintra has there been anything as bad out of Portugal.

It is on almost precisely this text now before us that all three parties promised a referendum. All three parties said that they would give the people a say. None of us knows what the people would say nor the outcome of a referendum were there to be one. People in the Republic of Ireland will tell us tomorrow in a referendum what they think. They have had an excellent campaign and debate and it seems that the outcome is

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close. Some people say that it depends entirely on the weather. In thinking about the Irish referendum, we incidentally note and reject the patronising view that the treaty would be too difficult for the British public to understand and that it can be comprehended only by the sublime genius of the minds of the Foreign Office.

We do not know what the outcome would be. We do not know what impact there would be if the treaty falls as a result of the Irish rejection, although we have some reports from Brussels, including the FT’s excellent Quentin Peel, that far from stymieing the EU advance, it would clear matters up and that the smaller member states are longing for the whole thing to be dropped. Mr Peel quotes a Brussels official as saying that few tears would be shed if the whole thing were dropped. We do not know what the impact would be, although we have had many dire predictions. Nor do we know the full purpose of the treaty and what effects it will have on our constitution.

There are legions of known unknowns in this treaty. There are provisions that allow new provisions and powers that permit new powers, and it is full of what astronomers call dark matter. The other night, in an exchange at a late hour, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that this goes further than any other treaty on accountability. But it goes further than any other treaty in its open-endedness as well. It leaves countless doors and windows open for the new departures, transfers of power and treaty changes without proper parliamentary control. That is the nature of it and I am not sure that any such Bill—people have referred to Maastricht and so forth—with such open-ended features has ever been presented to Parliament before. As a dodgy company floatation prospectus might say, its aim seems to be to carry out an undertaking of great advantage by means and for purposes which will be explained later. I fear that the directors of the South Sea Company would have recognised that approach.

We do not know any of those things. However, we do know that the public are being hoodwinked—and the public know that as well. The latest YouGov poll shows that 65 per cent know it is the same text as before. They believe that Labour has broken its promise. Some 51 per cent of those polled want a referendum say on this. The Lord President may have come across this poll and may know something about it. The only misnomer in this excellent poll is the phrase YouGov. We do not “gov”. A failing Government try to “gov” and a so-called listening Government do not listen. The Government say they want to be closer to the people yet take good care to keep as far as they can from them on this issue. The same goes for the Liberal Democrat party and its belief in listening to and being closer to the people—not, it seems, on this issue.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, will the noble Lord recommend to his colleagues at the other end of the House that when they vote this evening, they should take notice of polls? A poll published today in the Daily Telegraph says that 65 per cent of the British people support the Government’s position on 42 days.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am sure they will have a lively debate on this issue and no doubt the same point will be made. That does not stop me making it now and refuting the proposition that nobody really wants this referendum when so many people do.

Much as I like the phrase “you gov” it does not seem to operate in this case because a Government who want to be trusted prove themselves thoroughly untrustworthy. A Government who say that the treaty will wonderfully benefit the UK nevertheless refuse to seek confirmation from the people. There is not much “you gov” there. We are told again and again that this treaty is different when we can plainly see—this is the frustrating part—that it is the same. We know that two plus two equals four but the Government keep asserting—they do not even argue, they assert—that it makes five.

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