HL Deb 07 November 2003 vol 654 cc1040-6

11.32 a.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order predominantly deals with certain postal references in existing primary and secondary legislation, bringing them in line with references and provisions contained within the Postal Services Act 2000. The House will be reassured to learn that the DTI considers these to be the last outstanding legislative change needed to implement the framework for postal services set out in the Postal Services Act 2000. The substance of the draft order is mainly that of a legislative "tidying up" nature.

Your Lordships may recall that a feature inherent in the provisions and the underlying policy surrounding the Postal Services Act 2000 was that the old statutory Post Office corporation should be dissolved, following the transfer of the business, property, rights and liabilities, and so on to the new plc company. Amendments contained within this draft order clear the way towards being able to dissolve the old Post Office corporation as far as concerns a legislative context, therefore completing the implementation of the Postal Services Act 2000.

The 2000 Act provided order-making powers geared to working towards this outcome. It has provision for making a dissolution order, as well as provisions for making orders to amend primary, secondary and local legislation consequential on the passing of the Act. There has already been one consequential modifications order during 2001, making necessary amendments to postal references contained in primary and secondary legislation, plus two local consequential modifications orders, the last of which came into force on 10th July 2003, milking necessary amendments to local legislation.

I should explain why these outstanding issues have not been dealt with in the 2000 Act itself or in the earlier order. In that regard the purpose of this order is to deal with areas that have been identified as requiring amendment after the earlier items of legislation came into force. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that the Post Office is an organisation that has been in statute for a considerable period of time and that there is a great deal of legislation that includes references to the Post Office and postal services. Therefore, although regrettable, I hope your Lordships may consider it understandable that some minor references were overlooked on those earlier occasions. The department is confident that this draft order, along with the recently in force second local consequential order, will tidy up all the outstanding postal legislative references in statute. It does not plan to make any further consequential modification orders under the Postal Services Act 2000 after this one, if it receives approval.

As your Lordships will have seen, the draft order is largely technical in its content and attempts to do nothing that has not been done before in the previous orders made under the Postal Services Act 2000 and laid before this House.

Articles 1 and 3 of the order are fairly self-explanatory. Article 1 gives the citation for the draft order. It provides that the draft order shall come into force on the day after the day it is made and that the draft order does not extend to the Channel Islands or to the Isle of Man. Article 3 merely gives effect to Schedules 1 and 2 of the draft order.

Article 2 makes amendments to two Post Office works Acts. The effect is to construe references to the "Post Office" contained in these Acts—including references which have effect as such references—as references to the "Post Office company", which is now of course known as Royal Mail Holdings plc. It also allows for any function executable by the Post Office company under these Acts to be executable by any relevant subsidiary of the Post Office company.

The amendments are merely technical in nature. They update references to the old Post Office corporation, bringing them in line with what is now required under the Postal Services Act 2000 and putting them in the correct context required to facilitate that the relevant parts of the company are able to conduct their business as envisaged. They are similar to amendments contained in Article 2 of the recently in force local consequentials order.

Article 4 consists of transitional and saving provisions made in respect of modifications made in Schedules 1 and 2 to the order. It is prudent that saving is given to cover any permission granted, annulments made or confirmations given by virtue of the entry to a "universal service provider" contained in Schedule 4 to the Public Health Act 1961, and also to cover any outstanding offences in relation to the Theft Acts or any repeal the draft order makes of a previous saving to a repeal. Making any amendments to these areas of statute without a saving would not be sensible, as any such changes would have a substantive effect on any issues that were still live at the time this draft order comes into force. I am sure noble Lords are familiar with such common practice in other legislation which we have considered.

Schedule 1 makes certain modifications to a few enactments as a result of provisions contained within the Postal Services Act 2000. These amendments change postal references in these items of legislation to bring them in line with postal references contained in the Postal Services Act 2000. The modifications are similar in nature to those made in the first consequentials order. They deal with interpretations of the term "mail bag" in the two Theft Acts, replacing them with the new definition envisaged of them in the 2000 Act to address the current inconsistency between these items of legislation. It also changes the references made to the "Post Office" in Section 139(3) of the Post Office Act 1969 to make sure that they now relate to a universal service provider as defined in the 2000 Act. That is necessary as the Post Office reference here relates to it in its context as a statutory undertaker performing the universal service. Now that there is potential for more than one universal service provider the reference should no longer be solely to the Post Office company.

Schedule 2 makes certain repeals that again are needed to clear the way forward for dissolution of the old corporation. Some of these repeals are made in conjunction with amendments contained in Schedule 1 and also in conjunction with the saving provisions contained in Article 4 of the draft order.

Finally, I should like to confirm to the House that in my view the provisions of this order are compatible with the convention rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. As I have mentioned before, the order attempts nothing that has not been done before in the previous orders. Accordingly, I commend this draft order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. The order might well be described as a "tidying up process"—a more appropriate description for it than for the European constitution, as the Prime Minister describes it.

As the Minister said, the order is an amendment to the consequential amendments order passed in 2001, which made several drafting amendments to the Postal Services Act 2000. The fact that both the original amendments and those before us are needed is an example of "legislate in haste; amend at leisure". In his helpful Explanatory Memorandum, the Minister of State in another place dismisses the new problem as, a handful of further changes that need to be made" that "have come to light". The amendments relate to relatively recent legislation, such as the Post Office Works Act 1959, the Post Office (Subway) Act 1966 and the Post Office Act 1969. I am told that an essential talent for any lawyer—and, by the same token, a parliamentary draftsman—is to be able to use an index. It is a little surprising that those Acts were overlooked when the original primary and secondary legislation was prepared. Bearing in mind the complexities of cross-referencing in legislation, which I readily recognise, I must also ask why a blanket, catch-all phrase could not have been included in the original Act or the previous set of consequential amendments to cover any reference to the Post Office in any other Act.

I make that suggestion in the hope that there is not a further handful of changes lurking somewhere or, worse, still, a time bomb somewhere in the statute book on which we shall have to expend even further parliamentary time and legal expense. I hope that the Minister is right in claiming that this is the last such order. Subject to those comments, we do not oppose the order.

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 (within the meaning of the Postal Services Act 2000)". 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 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 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 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.