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My Lords, Consignia's discussions with TPG were about exploring whether a merger of its postal activities with the Dutch group would be commercially beneficial to the company. It was not however possible to reach common ground. If the merger had gone ahead, it was likely to have involved an exchange of the share capital in Consignia plc by Consignia Holdings plc for shares in the merged entity.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is it part of the Government's policy for Britain to emerge with a British-led major enterprise in the competitive postal market that is now emerging in Europe? Does he agree that a natural candidate from Britain for that position is the Post Office, alias Consignia?
My Lords, clearly the Government would like to see Consignia become a major international player. Consignia already has, through acquisition, entered into several overseas markets. Obviously, the company is in difficulty at present and in March it announced the first phase of its renewal plan to turn the company around. Once the UK market is further liberalised—obviously, the timing of that is a matter for Postcomm—Consignia will need to become more efficient and give better customer service. That is, of course, an essential requirement if it is to become an international player.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, were he to confirm that he regards the Post Office as part of the essential fabric of our society—I say the "Post Office" deliberately and not "Consignia"—he would be speaking for all noble Lords and, indeed, for the country? Does he also agree that the precedent of the purchase by Enron of Wessex Water provided a sad example of the concerns that people would have were the Post Office to fall under the wrong control? If he agrees with that, will he also be prepared to agree that, whatever happens to the control of the Post Office and Consignia, the universal service obligation will be maintained?
My Lords, clearly the Post Office is part of the essential infrastructure of the country. Ministers made it very clear to the Post Office that, were there to be a merger, it would have to be in the public interest both in terms of the workforce and consumers. As the regulator, Postcomm has as its first obligation to maintain the universal service obligation, and that, of course, would remain in place.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 21st March my noble friend Lady Blatch and I asked him whether there had been any negotiations between Consignia and a foreign company? His reply on that occasion was that he did not know of any. However, can he now say for the record whether, had he known then what he knows now, his answer would have been simply "yes"?
My Lords, I believe that a number of questions were raised on that occasion, which remains vividly in my mind. I believe that the answer now is "Yes, there were merger discussions". However, as I explained then, I was not aware of those discussions at the time.
My Lords, I believe that they are compatible. If one looks across Europe, one can see examples of where that takes place. I see no reason why, in liberalising the market, it should not be possible to maintain a universal service obligation, as has happened in other countries.