HC Deb 11 December 1995 vol 268 cc453-5W
Mr. Patrick Thompson

To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick upon Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, what consideration the House of Commons Commission has given to the possible safeguards that might be required to protect the future provision of printing services to Parliament in the event of the privatisation of HMSO. [4901]

Mr. Beith

[holding answer 6 December 1995]: After careful considering of the possible safeguards that might be required to protect the future provision of printing services to Parliament in the event of privatisation of HMSO, the Commission agreed to the following reply which Madam Speaker has sent to the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons: You wrote to me on 19 September to notify me of the Government's plan to privatise Her Majesty's Stationery Office, and to ask me what safeguards might be required to enable the House to continue its agreement with HMSO after privatisation. Before sending this reply, I have, as you know, consulted the Finance and Services Committee and my colleagues on the House of Commons Commission. We have also taken the advice of the House officials most directly concerned. Although the services of HMSO are important throughout the public sector, they are of particularly vital significance to the House of Commons. Unlike Government Departments and agencies, the House places continuous daily demands on HMSO's printing services whenever it is in session. The timely production of the Order Paper, Hansard, bills and other documents—to very tight timetables and generally overnight—is essential to the transaction of parliamentary business: without the necessary documents, the House and its committees simply could not function. Against this background, you will understand that I and my fellow Commissioners have concerns about the possible consequences, both short and long-term, of privatising a public sector organisation which has, in general, given good and reliable service to the House for most of this century. Our principal concerns, and the safeguards which we think necessary to meet them, may be summarised as follows:

  1. (i) For some time to come the House will continue to be dependent on the Parliamentary Press in South London, with its trained and experienced staff, to ensure the overnight printing of documents to the timetables and standards which we have come to expect. This is a costly facility, and there must be some anxiety that a private sector owner would be tempted to experiment with cheaper methods for providing the service, not appreciating the unpredictability of the House's requirements and the large variations in parliamentary workload that can be experienced from one year (and even one week) to the next. We would therefore be seeking an absolute guarantee that the overnight production facilities in inner London will be retained for as long as the House continues to consider them necessary.
  2. (ii) Staff of the House (the Editorial Supervisor of the Vote and his team) currently work alongside HMSO employees in the overnight compilation and preparation of the Vote Bundle. We 454 would need a guarantee that adequate space and facilities in the Parliamentary Press will continue to be made available to those staff for as long as the House requires.
  3. (iii) The House's documents and the procedural rules which underpin them, are complex. HMSO staff and management acquire experience and knowledge of those complexities as they progress from job to job in the organisation; and they are brought up in the tradition that in all circumstances the requirements of Parliament are paramount. We are concerned that a private company might seek to economise by employing less experienced staff or by appointing new managers who would not have the same appreciation of the House's needs. We would therefore be looking for an assurance that there will be substantial continuity in the staffing and management of the relevant sections of HMSO after privatisation, and adequate training for any new staff.
  4. (iv) For similar reasons we seek an assurance of prior consultation with the House before any significant changes are made in the management or organisation of HMSO's directorate of Parliamentary and Statutory Publishing.
  5. (v) At present, as an Agency, HMSO is under ministerial oversight and a minister is ultimately answerable to the House in the event of a failure in its services. After privatisation, that line of accountability will be broken. The House authorities will be responsible or contracting with the privatised company for the provision of printing and publishing services, but will not be in a position to account directly for a failure on the company's part to meet the requirements of the contract. We therefore think it essential that there should be an identified individual within the privatised Stationery Office who is responsible for the contract with the House and acknowledges an obligation to account to the authorities and committees of the House on all aspects of the service being provided.
  6. (vi) The House has negotiated, and with the Commission's approval is on the point of concluding, a new Supply and Service Agreement (SSA) with HMSO. This agreement provides for a detailed specification of service standards, delivery schedules and related technical details. These specifications should, at least, maintain existing standards, and no attempt should be made to water them down after privatisation, without agreement with the House authorities.
  7. (vii) Similarly, we consider that any prospective purchaser of the Stationery Office should be required to accept the agreed principles which are set out in the SSA, particularly so far as they concern the rights of the House to regulate the production and reproduction of its documents, both in paper and electronic form.
  8. (viii) The first annual financial settlement under the new SSA will come into effect on 1 January 1996. Among other things, it provides for substantial reductions in the sale price of many House publications, including Hansard. This is an objective to which I, and many Members of the House, have attached great importance for some time; and it has been achieved without any significant increase in the payments to be made to HMSO by the House. Further improvements should follow from increasing use of new technology. Any prospective purchaser of HMSO should therefore be required to guarantee that it will not seek any increase (in real terms) in the charges paid by the House or the level of prices to the public above those negotiated for 1996, and that the House will be credited with a proportionate share of future savings arising from technological advances.
Roger Freeman's press statement on 27 September indicated that the Government's decision to privatise HMSO was conditional on satisfactory arrangements being made for the future provision of services to Parliament. Before deciding whether or not that criterion has been met, the Commission will need to be assured that the safeguards and guarantees which I have outlined in this letter are capable of being enforced, not just in the immediate aftermath of privatisation but over the longer term. In that connection we are particularly concerned at the possibility that an initial purchaser might subsequently wish to break up the business by partial sales. Fragmentation of the organisation, or sale to an overseas buyer, could pose serious, and perhaps unacceptable, problems for the House. We would like to know what mechanisms the Government proposes to guard against that possibility. Assuming the Commission and the House can be satisfied on these points, it will be necessary to convert the SSA and the new safeguards, together with the service specifications and the settlement on prices and charges, into formal contracts which will take effect on privatisation. This is a complex and exacting task for the small team of House officials involved, and professional and legal support will probably be required. Every effort will be made to progress this work in accordance with the Government's programme for the sale, which I understand is aimed at completion in July next year; but we cannot at this stage be at all confident that it will be possible to resolve all the issues before that deadline. We therefore request that, if it proves to be necessary, the Government's timetable for the sale of HMSO, should be adapted to the progress of preparatory work, rather than the other way round. In this letter, I have set out the views of the Commission, which has statutory responsibility for the House's services. But we also agreed that the House as a whole should be given an early opportunity to express its opinion on the Government's proposals. That debate might best be based on a prior ministerial statement. I am therefore copying this letter to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. A copy goes also to the Lord Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords.

Mr. Derek Foster

To ask the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee what consideration his Committee has given to the implications for the House of privatisation of HMSO. [5254]

Mr. Channon

The Finance and Services Committee considered the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman during its deliberation on a new supply and service agreement with HMSO. The Committee's recommendations have been put before the House of Commons Commission which is giving the matter urgent consideration.