§ Order read, for resuming adjourned Debate on Amendment [June 26th] to Question [June 21st]—"That the Bill be committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.":—
And which Amendment was—
To leave out the words the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.,' and add the words 'a Select Committee.'"—(Mr. Cohen.)
§ MR. KIMBER
I began speaking at five minutes before 12 on Monday, and I think I am not debarred from finishing my speech.
§ MR. KIMBER
But I was informed by the responsible representatives of the front bench that the Debate would not be resumed last night and that I might go home.
§ MR. CAWLEY (Lancashire, Prestwich)
How it can be contended that this Bill can be better dealt with by a Committee consisting partly of members of this House and partly of members of the House of Lords I cannot understand. The hon. Members who oppose this Bill going to the Grand Committee on Trade would never be satisfied unless they got a Committee which would decide exactly as they wish. The hon. Member for Islington contended that the action of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite was not in accordance with the findings of the Select Committee. That Committee was "strongly of opinion that general, immediate, and effective competition by the Post Office or local authorities is necessary," and "that a really efficient Post Office service affords the best means of securing such competition." That does not say at all that the competition should be by the Post Office; it only says the Post Office perhaps might be the best means. As I understand, if the Post Office take over the National Telephone Company they will have to take it over on certain conditions.
§ MR. KIMBER
On a question of order. Not being present last night, I 876 cannot say from personal observation what took place, but I understand the Order was called on, and immediately, on a question being put by an hon. Member, adjourned.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is misinformed. An hon. Member spoke for two or three minutes, and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House turned round and said that if he persisted in his objection to the motion he would immediately adjourn it, and he moved the adjournment of the Debate, which was then agreed to.
§ MR. KIMBER
May I ask one more question? Is it competent for me now to move a further Amendment upon the Amendment which is now before the House?
§ * MR. SPEAKER
No; the question is that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question.
§ MR. CAWLEY
The arguments which have been used in favour of sending this Bill to a Select Committee are that the previous Committee did not go into the question of municipal trading. I submit that a Committee investigating the telephone question could not go into the question of municipal trading. The whole matter has been investigated thoroughly, and I am decidedly in favour of it going to the Standing Committee on Trade.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
One reason why I object to the course which has been pursued by the Government is that we cannot enter into the merits of certain statements which were made by the Financial Secretary of the Treasury, and it is on account of those statements that some of us entertain an objection to this Bill going before a Grand Committee instead of being discussed in the House. The result of sending the Bill to a Select Committee at this period of the session, as is suggested, would be to shelve the whole thing. It is then proposed to send it to a Grand Committee. How have we arrived at that proposal? After the able speech of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Second Reading of the Bill, there undoubtedly was obstruction. I The next day the First Lord of the Treasury tells us that under the circumstances he proposes to send the Bill to a 877 Grand Committee. What were the circumstances? When the Secretary of the Treasury made his speech there was no intention of sending the Bill to a Grand Committee.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
And yet the Secretary of the Treasury asked us to pass the Second Reading, and did not, as is usual, tell us the Bill would be sent to a Grand Committee? The intention may have been adumbrated in the mind of the First Lord of the Treasury, but it did not assume living form until the next day, when the right hon. Gentleman announced that as a condition of the obstruction not being proceeded with the Bill should be sent to a Grand Committee. That was bargain number one. How was that bargain made?
§ THE FINANCIAL SECRETARY TO THE TREASURY (Mr. HANBURY,) Preston
I have thought from the first that sending it to a Grand Committee was the quickest way of getting it through.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
If the necessary time had been given in the House, as we all anticipated, it would not have been necessary to send it to a Grand Committee. But if the First Lord of the Treasury had told the Secretary of the Treasury that he would not have time given to discuss it——
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
Somehow or other the Secretary of the Treasury undoubtedly arrived at the conviction in his mind that it was very doubtful whether he would get time to discuss the Bill. He will admit that.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
Well, I cannot look into the mind of the Secretary of the Treasury, but that is the result. Did the First Lord of the Treasury or the Treasury, between the time of moving the Second Reading and the making of the announcement with regard to the Bill going to a Grand Committee, see any 878 Members of the House who are also directors of this Company? They will not answer. Silence gives consent. The next step is that the Secretary of the Treasury gets up and says, "We now propose to send the Bill to a Grand Committee, and, what is more, I will tell you of certain concessions that have been made." To whom?
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
Since these concessions were decided upon the opponents of the Bill have ceased their opposition, and yet the right hon. Gentleman wishes us to believe that the concessions have been made to the Government. The very fact that their opposition has flickered out proves that they think the concessions have been made to them. Those concessions are undoubtedly of a most important character, especially the one which will allow this company to exist after 1911. There was the strongest feeling in the House that no matter what happened we should retain absolutely all our rights to put an end to the concession at that time, and buy up their stock-in-trade at the price of old iron, if we happened to want any old iron then. The concession was not made to municipalities; they did not ask for it; they were perfectly satisfied with the Bill as it was. Another serious question in connection with the matter is that there has been an enormous amount of lobbying in regard to the Bill. It has been brought to the knowledge of the House that the banker of the company sent out a circular with a postal card, asking Members to state their views, either for or against the Bill. That was an attempt to influence Gentlemen to vote against the Bill.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
The right hon. Gentleman did not send me one of those circulars, because he knows that my public virtue is such that it would not be influenced in that way.
§ * SIR JOHN LUBBOCK
The hon. Gentleman admits that he has not seen the circular, if he had I am sure he would feel his statement to be unfounded.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
I did not get it, so far as I am aware, but it may have gone into the waste-paper basket, as I get a great deal of literature which goes there.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
This discussion is very foreign to the question before the House, which is whether the Bill should go to a Grand Committee or to a Select Committee.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
This is my reason for sending it neither to a Grand Committee nor to a Select Committee: The chairman of this company stated plainly that gentlemen had been added to the Board who were Members of this House in order to obtain a considerable amount of Parliamentary influence. There is a very strong feeling in the country against Members of the House of Commons using their influence in this House on behalf of companies of which they are directors. The whole matter ought to be threshed out in Committee of the whole House, and not sent upstairs. All the more is this necessary as the Bill has been absolutely changed since its Second Reading. As to getting through in a brief time the right hon. Gentleman the member for Wolverhampton answered that, when, a few evenings ago, alluding to a proposal to send a Bill before a Grand Committee, he said that at this time of the session the great difficulty is to get Members to attend on the Grand Committees, and always at this period of the session it is better to have a matter discussed in the House. I have no doubt that this Bill would be passed in one single night if we were given this opportunity. It is not a Party question, because a vast majority of Members both on this and the other side of the House are in favour of the Bill. This question concerns the dignity and honour of the House, more especially after these statements in regard to lobbying, and the statements about members of this Government being connected with the company. Those gentlemen have been instrumental in obtaining concessions from the country, and I think it concerns the honour of this House that the matter should not be sent upstairs, but that it should be threshed out in the House.
§ SIR J. JOICEY (Durham, Chester-le-Street)
I must again disavow the insinuations which have been made by some Members of this House in regard to some 880 of us who are opposing this Bill. We are opposing this measure in the public interest, and I disavow entirely the insinuation that our action arises from any other reason. It is quite evident from what I have said in this House that I do not love this Bill at all, and I would welcome any means of delaying it in order that it may have fuller consideration by the country, because I recognise it is one of the most important questions which we have had before this House. I do not object to this Bill going to a Grand Committee, although I should prefer seeing it discussed in this House, or I would much rather that it went to a Select Committee. This Bill is not founded upon the Report which was given by the Select Committee last year, and I maintain my position with regard to that point whatever my hon. friends may say to the contrary. I say that this Bill is going in direct opposition to the strongest recommendations of that Committee. One of their strong recommendations was that assistance ought to be given by the Post Office. Now this Bill has been altered considerably. Other things have been introduced into the discussion which show that an arrangement has been come to with the National Telephone Company which goes even further against the recommendation of the Commission. It was never supposed for a moment that this licence would ever be extended beyond 1911, and if you send this Bill to the Committee you will be able to take evidence upon this point and go fully into the arrangement which has been entered into between the right hon. Gentleman and the representative of the National Telephone Company. I have strong objections to this Bill altogether, and I shall do everything in my power to delay this legislation in conformity with the regulations of this House, and I shall do my best to alter it, and if I cannot do that to my own satisfaction I shall do my best to induce this House to reject the measure. The Bill is not in conformity with the recommendations of the Committee, and I think we ought to have further inquiry into it. Her Majesty's Government are rushing this question, and that fact is strongly impressed upon my mind. I think it would be very much better if this Bill was either withdrawn or sent to a Select Committee. Then the different interests in the country would be able to see how it affects them, and on 881 that ground I shall support the proposal that this Bill be sent to a Select Committee.
§ * SIR JOHN LUBBOCK
After the unfair remarks made by the hon. Gentleman opposite, perhaps the House will allow me to say a war or two. In the first place, with regard to the charge as to canvassing or obstruction, I indignantly deny that there has been anything of the kind, so far, at any rate, as those with whom I am acting. The hon. Gentleman complained of some circular issued, as he alleged, on behalf of the company to members of this House, but when I asked him to quote the circular, it appeared that he had not seen it. I deny entirely that any circular which I have issued bears out the statement made by the hon. Member, or has been issued by us on behalf of the Company. Certainly we were asked to come down here and support the reference to a Select Committee, but there is nothing unusual in that being done, and I entirely deny that that was done in the interests of the National Telephone Company. So far from the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee being done in the interests of the Company, I have been informed that the directors, if they vote at all, will do so with the hon. Member for Northampton upon this question and not with us. I support this proposal because we object to Governments or municipalities engaging in commercial transactions. At the beginning of the session we found that municipal trading was obtaining greater and greater dimensions. I brought the matter before the House, at the request of the London, and other Chambers of Commerce, and the First Lord of the Treasury not only promised us a Committee to enquire into it but he also said that he considered the matter of so much importance that he suggested that it should be a Joint Committee of both Houses. The London Chamber of Commerce, supported by most of the Chambers of Commerce in this country, are opposed to this Bill because it is a great extension of municipal trading. The London Chamber of Commerce unanimously passed a resolution as follows:That it is undesirable that the Postmaster-General should license county boroughs to provide systems of public telephone communication pending the report of the Joint Committee of the two Houses appointed to consider the whole question of municipal trading, and they 882 urge upon the Government, pending the report of that Joint Committee, that the Telephone Communication Bill should be postponed.If this Bill goes to a Grand Committee the London Chamber of Commerce will have no opportunity of being heard and stating their views. But if the measure goes to a Select Committee they would have that opportunity. We do complain that Her Majesty's Government, after having promised this Committee, have not been able to appoint it; but they do complain that the Government, while they have not appointed the Committee on Municipal Trading, are themselves proposing a great extension of municipal trading. Surely the various Chambers of Commerce in the country are entitled to have an opportunity of stating their reasons before a Committee of this House for passing the resolutions which they have adopted. Again, the Society of Arts and Manufactures, who have done much to promote the manufactures of this country, is also opposed to the Bill, and they have passed a resolution to the effect:That no further powers for such purposes ought to be granted to such bodies.The Society of Arts and Manufactures is a very influential body, and they certainly are not opponents of Her Majesty's Government, and when they pass a resolution of this kind, and ask to be heard, surely they ought to be afforded that opportunity. Then, again, the Institute of Electrical Engineers have passed a resolution that it is undesirable that legislation should be passed to encourage the undertaking of telephonic communication by public bodies. All I am asking is that these very important bodies should be given by the Government an opportunity of stating to this House their reasons for the opinions which they have expressed upon this subject. I do not deny that if we send this Bill to a Select Committee we cannot probably pass it this year; but whether we pass it this year or next year it is much more important that it should be a wise 883 Bill, and that it should be seriously and carefully considered. I have shown the House that bodies pre-eminently qualified to express an opinion on this subject have urged on the Government the desirability of taking the course we have suggested, and under the circumstances I earnestly hope that the Government will take those recommendations into consideration, and that we shall be afforded an opportunity of stating in a Committee of this House the reasons which make us believe that if the House passes the Bill as it now stands it will be adopting an unwise course. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury in his speech gave strong reasons against nationalisation, and yet he proposes to nationalise the whole metropolitan area. He gave strong reasons in another part of his speech why private enterprise should be encouraged.
§ * SIR JOHN LUBBOCK
I only wish, Mr. Speaker, to point out that the Bill really does not carry out the views which the right hon. Gentleman expressed. I have shown that important institutions throughout the country are anxious to lay their views before the Government, and I accordingly urge on the Government to send this Bill to a Select Committee.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I can assure my right hon. friend that nobody in this House thinks that any stain attaches to his character in connection with any proceedings he may have thought it right to take in this matter. If there is a man in this House—and there are many men—above suspicion, my right hon. friend is certainly that man. I cannot, however, agree with the views of my right hon. friend on this matter, and I do earnestly hope that the House will not further prolong this discussion, but will take the only course which will enable us to pass the Bill this session, and bring to an end what everybody on both sides of the House agrees to be a most unsatisfactory condition of affairs. I have really not heard any objection to the course proposed, except the objection stated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton, that because there have been what he describes as negotiations between the Telephone 884 Company and my right hon. friend who is in charge of this Bill, therefore it would be proper to discuss this measure in the Committee of the whole House and not in a Committee upstairs. I fail to see that that fact is in any sense an argument leading to the conclusion which the hon. Gentleman endeavoured to establish. The whole result and upshot of what has passed is not that a concession has been made to the Company but that the conditions which were to be embodied in a Treasury Minute are to be embodied in the Bill. On the other hand, the Company have entirely given up their position as monopolists, to which great objection has been taken, and they have, as is well known to the House, made an agreement which will, in our judgment at all events, give facilities for that competition which I agree is so desirable for the healthy development of any great interest. My right hon. friend says that he speaks for the Chamber of Commerce of London. I did not understand that he agreed with the Chamber of Commerce, and indeed I rather gathered from his speech that he differed from it. The London Chamber of Commerce desires that the telephone system should become like the telegraphs, a Government monopoly. My right hon. friend objects to that even more than to municipalisation, and I really do not understand why he should have made himself the spokesman of a body from which he differs.
§ * SIR JOHN LUBBOCK
The resolution of the London Chamber of Commerce urged on the Government that it was undesirable that the Postmaster-General should licence county boroughs to provide a system of proper telephonic communication pending the Report of the Joint Committee about to be appointed by the two Houses to consider the whole question of municipal trading, and also that pending the Report of that Committee the Telegraphs (Telephonic Communication, etc.) Bill should be postponed.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
My right hon. friend forgets that while no doubt the London Chamber of Commerce would like to see this Bill postponed, as would also my right hon. friend himself, yet the Chamber desires to see the whole matter in the hands of the Government, whereas my right hon. friend wishes it to remain 885 in the hands of a private company. There cannot be more divergent theories than those advocated by the Chamber of Commerce and my right hon. friend. I would be out of order if I attempted to show that if this Bill passes in the form in which it now stands it will destroy a monopoly which I do not think on the whole is for the benefit of the country, and therefore I will content myself with impressing on all the members of the House who desire to see this Bill passed that the only course which will make it possible in the short space of time which now remains to us to pass it will be the course we propose.
§ MR. STUART (Shoreditch)
I sincerely trust that the House will not refer this Bill to a Select Committee, for the directly opposite reason to that given by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the University of London in favour of referring it to such a Committee. I consider it all important that this Bill, which I believe to be a good Bill, and which I desire to see passed, should be passed during the present session. I was one who expressed the view which I still hold, that it would be dangerous that it should be even referred to a Grand Committee, but if it is referred to a Select Committee there is an end of it altogether. What would a Select Committee do? It would open up the whole question again. Counsel would no doubt be engaged, and parties would be heard, and there would be long inquiries such as have been made twice already in the most efficient manner possible by one of the strongest Committees on which I ever sat—the late Telephones Committee—and presided over by one of the strongest and ablest chairmen under whom I ever had the pleasure of serving. If we set up another Committee now, we would be exactly where we were two or three years ago. I am not going into the merits of the Bill, but I should have preferred that a measure of this kind should be considered by a Committee of the whole House. Just now we shrink from suggestions of arrangements and compromises, but possibly we might have another opinion if the details were before the House. I throw the responsibility for this Bill on the Government. I throw the responsibility on them to carry this Bill either in its present form or as near its present form as possible, and I do so 886 with a certain confidence, because I believe it to be in the hands of the Secretary for the Treasury, who is as determined as I and others are to see this through to the best issue. Should he fail; should his hands be bound, or should the stroke be averted, then I will regret it on his own account, and also on account of the Government, the House, and the country. If the Bill is referred to a Select Committee, then good-bye to it. The responsibility of the Government will be at an end, and all our hope of securing action this year, or perhaps for many years to come, will vanish. Let the responsibility lie with the Government. They have carried through measures without alteration in this House before, and I do not see why they should not carry this Bill without alteration; but if there is to be an alteration let it be for the better. A Select Committee would, however, be death to the Bill.
§ * MR. W. F. LAWRENCE (Liverpool, Abercromby)
It is not to be wondered at that the hon. Gentleman speaks with some warmth, for the simple reason that London has got all it wants. But Liverpool now desires to get what has been given to London. Speaking for one division of the City of Liverpool, and with the approval of the corporation, I am entirely opposed to this Bill. Since the Second Reading many things have happened. The right hon. Gentleman brought in the Bill to beat down the Telephone Company at any cost. I am not interested in the Telephone Company, and those for whom I speak are not concerned with its future; but the principle of the Bill was to introduce competition in order to reduce the selling value of the company.
§ MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is now entering into matters not relevant to the question before the House.
§ * MR. W. F. LAWRENCE
What I have been endeavouring to show is that as the Bill has been very much altered and as its principle has been changed, we should therefore send it to a more deliberative body than a Grand Committee. It is a well-known fact that as the session goes on the Grand Committee becomes very attenuated, and the members do not give that close deliberation to a matter of this importance which the 887 case demands. It seems to me there has been distinctly a new departure under the arrangements made with the "lobbyers" during the last two or three days. By the original Bill the municipalities were to compete with the company, but now these bodies are not going to have any competition in their districts.
§ * MR. W. F. LAWRENCE
Well, I think I read this morning that the National Telephone Company are to pledge themselves to open no new exchanges where they have no exchanges now. If the right hon. Gentleman will not allow the present company to open new exchanges and not allow other companies to open exchanges, then when the municipal bodies go in for the telephone business they will be protected from competition.
§ MR. HANBURY
May I be allowed to explain what has been done. The National Telephone Company have agreed that they will not work outside the areas where they have at present exchanges. That is to say, their general licence to run all over the country ceases, and they are confined to their existing areas. But in all other areas there is a perfect right reserved, either to the local authority or to a new company.
§ * MR. W. F. LAWRENCE
I understood the right hon. Gentleman has no intention of allowing other companies to set up where the municipal bodies start the telephone business.
§ * MR. W. F. LAWRENCE
Well, it is a natural deduction from what the right hon. Gentleman did say, viz., that the municipalities would be "protected." Therefore, I maintain, we have a new issue to put before the House. The municipal bodies are to impinge upon the work of the nation in a matter cognate to the postal service, and, without competition, they are to be entitled to engage in such an industrial enterprise, not only in their own areas, but sometimes outside their boundaries. We may fairly demand further information before we proceed to this new departure. Inasmuch as the Government have given notice of an inquiry into the whole system of municipal trading, it seems unreasonable to expect us now to sanction this wide extension of the principle without having more care- 888 fully examined into the subject. For these reasons, and inasmuch as a year's delay will not make very much difference to the National Telephone Company or to the convenience of the public, I shall support the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee.
§ MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)
The remarks of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down illustrate the difficulty in which the House has been placed, and this has not been much assisted by the interruptions of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury. Since the motion to refer the Bill to a Grand Committee was made, a revolutionary change has taken place in the attitude of the Government. Now, that change has been discussed at considerable length by the Secretary to the Treasury, and I suppose he must have been in order in doing so, and the First Lord of the Treasury has also alluded to it to-day.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member was not in his place probably when I stated that the right hon. Gentleman was not strictly in order in making his statement, but as it was with the general consent and desire of the House he was allowed to do so.
§ MR. LOUGH
I feel I cannot follow out the matter at all; but my point is that we ought to have fuller details of this revolutionary change before we arrive at a decision. I was glad to hear that the hon. Member for Hoxton did not oppose so strongly the reference of the Bill to a Grand Committee. I was not opposed to a Grand Committee. But I do not know what to say now. I want to know whether, before we decide, we cannot have fuller information on the important matters referred to by the Secretary to the Treasury. We are not in the position we were in when the Second Reading was taken; and we should do nothing in the dark. Will the right hon. Gentleman lay a Paper on the Table embodying fully and clearly the arrangements, which appear to be revolutionary, that have been made? If he does that I will not persist.
§ MR. HANBURY
All the suggestions of the Government will be effectually embodied, by means of new clauses, in the Bill which will be presented to the Grand Committee.
§ MR. LOUGH
I am glad to have got that from the right hon. Gentleman. Since he now tells us that these arrangements will be fully embodied in the Bill referred to the Grand Committee, and since the First Lord has assured us that the only way to get the Bill through this session is by referring it to a Grand Committee, I will not take the responsibility of opposing it further.
§ * MR. FAITHFULL BEGG (Glasgow, St. Rollox)
I should like to state my reasons for objecting to the Bill being sent to a Grand Committee, and my preference for sending it to a Select Committee. The situation as it stands now is completely altered from what it was only a few days ago: and it is essential, in view of the changes in the Government position, that evidence should be brought in support of these new proposals. If that is not done it would be impossible to come to a correct conclusion as to these changes. I wish to refer to a remark made in this House a few clays ago by the hon. Member for Northampton, who gave it as his opinion that I was in some measure personally connected with the National Telephone Company, and that I was the stockbroker of the company. I wish to assure my hon. friend that he is entirely wrong in that statement. I have absolutely no connection with that company in any shape or form, and am not a shareholder in it. That leads me to say that in connection with these new arrangements which have been come to between the company and the Government, no objections on my part have been removed. I stand exactly where I did; and I advocate a reference of the Bill to a Select Committee, in order to get evidence, instead of to a Grand Committee, where no evidence can be taken. I must mention first the financial aspect of the question. When the licences stood to be terminated in 1911, the financial aspect of the matter had to be approached from a particular standpoint; but since the Government contemplate extending licences for a period of 25 years, totally different financial problems will have to be considered. I am prepared to argue that this extension of the licences for 25 years will increase their value exceedingly, and make it more difficult to purchase them, and I am convinced more strongly than ever that nationalisation is the only remedy. By 890 referring the Bill to a Select Committee we can lead evidence on that part of the problem. Another very material and radical change introduced within the last few days, of which there was not one single word in the Bill itself, and not a single syllable, except to the contrary effect, in the Treasury minute, is the proposal to permit competition, not only by municipalities but also by companies. That fundamentally changes the whole basis of the proposals as put before the House when the finance resolution was taken in Committee, when the Bill was introduced, and at all subsequent stages of the discussion. Here is a quotation from the report of the Select Committee last year on that point—they were contemplating certain contingencies:The difficulty arises in holding the balance equally between the local authorities and the company, that while it seems generally admitted to be desirable in the public interest that all licences should terminate in 1911," etc.This shows clearly that the only fact in connection with licences which was in the mind of the Select Committee, was the date 1911. But that is not all. In the Treasury minute which has since been published, there is evidence of exactly the same attitude of mind. In that minute, at page 4, clause 10, it is laid down that all licences will be terminable on 31st. December, 1911. It is perfectly clear that in the two earlier stages—both in the case of the Report of the Select Committee of the House, and in the case of the Treasury minute issued by my right hon. friend in explanation of his Bill—it was laid down as a fundamental principle that all licences should terminate in 1911. That principle has been departed from. We want to know the reason why the Government has departed from it, and why they are willing to give this extension of time. They called evidence on the subject, and not only is that the case, but I know my right hon. friend himself always held the view, until quite recently, as to 1911 being the date. Well, I pass from that to speak of the question of the competition of companies. That is also a fundamental change which has been made in the proposals of the Government since they were brought before the House. The Select Committee had no reference made to it, on the subject of the competition of companies. There is not a word in the evi- 891 dence or the Report upon the question, and there is nothing in my right hon. friend's Bill or the Treasury minute. This is what my right hon. friend said in April, 1898:I do not believe that competition by companies would be by any means the proper course to take.Further on he said:If, a I think, companies are practically impossible.That was the opinion of my right hon. friend twelve months ago, and yet he now comes down to the House and advocates such competition as one of the cardinal features of his scheme, notwithstanding that it is not in his Bill or Treasury minute. That alone is a sufficient reason for advocating that this matter should go to a Committee, where we can take evidence an these points and clear up these matters of difficulty. I do not know that I need detain the House any longer on this subject. There is, however, one other quotation that I should like to give before I sit down. Here is what my right hon. friend said:It is impossible to bind our successors, but assuming that they are men of ordinary common-sense they will not allow the licences to go beyond that year.And yet he comes before us to-day and advocates the very thing which twelve months ago he told us nobody of ordinary common-sense would do.
§ * MR. FAITHFULL BEGG
I knew that I should have difficulty in further discussing that matter, and so I will merely conclude by saying that we require to know something more about these changes proposed by the Government, and about this "arrangement" which does not involve a "concession." For this reason I think the House will do wisely to send this Bill to a Committee before whom evidence may be given, in order that these points may be cleared up.
§ MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)
I understand that there are some very important Amendments to the Bill which it is proposed to put on the Paper after 892 this motion is carried to-day, and to a large extent we are asked to vote in the dark.
§ MR. BROADHURST
Yes, I know the Secretary to the Treasury is usually correct in his statements, but when Ministers' statements are reduced to clauses they sometimes appear in a different form altogether and have a different meaning. Now, I do not accuse the right hon. Gentleman of intending to do anything of the kind, but we poor creatures have been caught so often that we naturally remember the fire in which our fingers have been burned. Now, Sir, as regards the question as to the Committee this Bill should go to. I should certainly support the motion for the Grand Committee on Trade. I cannot but do this in the interests of my constituents. I represent one of the largest trading communities of the country, and they are pressingly anxious for some improvement in the telephone system, which is important to their daily lives awl trade. It is more important in many respects than the telegraph system, especially in a commercial community where all the trade consists so much of detail, as the trade of Leicester does. In their interests I am bound to support the proposal—I have no choice. The right hon. Gentleman dictates to us as to how we should act in this matter. I have no option but to support him if he persists in his endeavour to send this Bill to a Grand Committee on Trade. I have been a member of the Grand Committees on Trade much longer than the right hon. Gentleman, and I have had considerable experience in the working of those bodies. I was a member of the first Grand Committee on Trade which sat in this House. The right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary was a leading member, and very well adapted to that particular class of legislation. But this is essentially a national question, and ought to have been decided on the floor of the House. There is no one obstructing the passing of this Bill so much as the Government themselves. I believe this Bill might have been got through the House at two sittings. But when we get upstairs to the Grand Committee on Trade all the 893 experts and authorities on obstruction, opposition, and contention, may be members of that Committee, and there we may be kept fencing about till the middle of July, when the chalices will be considerably reduced of the Bill being passed into law this session. We are as anxious about the right hon. Gentleman's offspring as he himself is, and we who have had longer—I do not say a better—experience than he has, feel convinced that to refer a Bill of this contentious nature to the Grand Committee at this period of the session is not at all encouraging to those who want a better telephone system. The fact is, the Government themselves have lost time. We must not mention Bills by name, but every man in the House, on whichever side he sits, could in a moment name a Bill which might have waited till this Bill had been passed; it might have waited even till next session, or till the end of the present Parliament.
§ MR. BROADHURST
I am obliged to you, Sir, for recalling me to the paths of duty and order again. My enthusiasm for this Bill has entirely led me astray, for which I apologise. Well, is it too late to appeal to Her Majesty's Government to still let the Committee stage take place in this House instead of going to a Grand Committee? That is the whole question with which I am concerned. If the Government will, at the eleventh hour, repent of their sins, and bring the Bill into this House in Committee, I will support them in every Division, if it is a progressive Division, in order to get the Bill through. That is a perfectly honest and straightforward pledge, and one which I have never ventured to make before in my life, and I do not know that I shall repeat it unless the right hon. Gentleman accepts. We know the strength of the right hon. Gentleman if he likes to exercise it. We all regard him as a hon. He has been caught in the proverbial net, and we are the little mice endeavouring to release him from what we consider an unwise complication of interests, which has entwined him and apparently overpowered him for the time being. As regards this measure, I have not been spoken to by a single person, and the right hon. Baronet's circular has not reached me. I never 894 fail to read anything to which his name is attached, and if I had received a card I should certainly have read it. The constant cry of the Chambers of Commerce is that you should nationalise the whole of the telephone system, as you have done the telegraphs. Failing that, we must expect as much as we can get from you. But that is no reason why we should not tell you that you ought to have done better. The right hon. Gentleman had the power and the opportunity, and if he had insisted that the Bill should have been passed through Committee in this House the Government must have given way. I do not think, if I may say so without offence, that the arguments of the right hon. Baronet were as good as he usually employs to convince this House of the policy which he wishes to pursue. I think they are rather weak. I do not think they are arguments that you could rely upon, but perhaps he has been overborne by the great City authority, the Chamber of Commerce, into advocating a policy which is evidently not one which commends itself to the House or the country. I therefore cannot support him on this occasion. This being a national question, and not a technical question, requiring expert advice, it is far better that a Bill of this kind should be dealt with by the whole House in Committee, and not by a Grand Committee upstairs, and I hope that some effort may yet be made to see if that course cannot be adopted.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
It is most interesting to see the support which the Secretary to the Treasury gets from the other side of the House; I should have supposed that this was a measure proposed by the front Opposition bench, and strenuously resisted by the Tories on this side. Me difficulty of this discussion is greatly added to by the changes which have taken place in the Bill itself. The hon. Member for Leicester says he supports the Bill because it is the child of the Secretary of the Treasury. But it is not the same child; the child has been changed at birth, and the present child is very much less like its father than the other was. Of course, we may not allude specifically to details as to the difference in the features of the two children. The First Lord of the Treasury says that the reference of this Bill to the Standing Committee is the only course that 895 affords a chance of passing this Bill into law this session. But what is the hurry? It is a Bill to empower the Government to spend two millions in competing with a private company. Why this hurry? Have we not spent millions enough this year? The one hiatus in my unfailing admiration for the nineteen men of genius who form Her Majesty's Government is this: their one weak point is finance, and when they come to their end "Finance" will be written on their grave.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
We have already this session intercepted two millions from the National Debt Extinction Fund, and we passed a resolution the other day for voting four millions.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! If the hon. Member is endeavouring to speak to the question, he is singularly unsuccessful.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
Inasmuch as the central principle of this Bill is to spend two millions more than the money we have already spent, I say there can be no hurry to begin the expenditure this year, and consequently there is no immediate hurry for passing this Bill. In saying this I am applying the argument used by the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury himself, when he says the only chance is in referring this Bill to the Grand Committee. I am not enormously enamoured of this Bill; there are certain points which ought to be cleared up. But there is one capital and absolutely conclusive reason for not pressing forward the Bill at this time. Nobody denies that on the merits of the case it would be a good thing to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, which would take evidence and consider matters entirely de novo.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
Really, the support the hon. Gentleman opposite gives to my right hon. friend is very uncertain.
§ MR. STUART
If the hon. gentleman had been present when I was speaking he would have known that I said, rightly or wrongly, that my view, as a member of the Select Committee, was that the whole question had been sufficiently gone into by the Select Committee.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
The hon. 896 Gentleman is wrong. I did listen to his speech, with that interest which his speeches invariably command, and with that disagreement which they almost invariably arouse in me. How can he say that all matters connected with this Bill have been considered by the Select Committee, when the Bill has been invented since the Select Committee was appointed, and has been changed since it was invented? In his impetuosity and compassion for the Tory Party he has made a great mistake. Now, my last reason why there is no reason to be in a hurry is that the Government have insisted upon appointing a Committee which is to deal with the very centre and marrow of the question—the subject of municipal trading. Suppose that Committee reports altogether against municipal trading——
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
It has not come into existence yet. My submission is that we should await the Report of that Committee which is about to be appointed.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Order Book, he will find the motion in the name of the principal Whip of the Government.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES:
It may not be down for to-day, but that does not affect the question. The intention is to appoint the Committee. Why, then, anticipate its decision? I repeat there is no hurry. There are a great many points which a Select Committee ought to inquire into; and, therefore, if this motion is pressed to a Division, I shall, unless the right hon. Gentleman is able to come to such arrangement with us as he did with the Telephone Company, feel it my duty to support the motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.
§ * LORD E. FITZMAURICE (Wilts, Cricklade)
I am afraid I shall bring 897 myself under the censure of the hon. Gentleman who last spoke, by announcing my intention to support the Government on the present occasion. The House will remember that my right hon. friend the Member for the Stirling Burghs announced that the only reason which induced him, in face of the sudden and unexpected announcement of the decision of the Government, to refer this Bill to a Standing Committee was the assurance of the Leader of the House that it afforded the only means of passing the Bill into law this session. Has anything since occurred to induce any hon. Member on this side to alter his view and to support the reference to a Select Committee? My hon. friend the Member for King's Lynn says that on the merits everybody thinks there ought to be a Select Committee. I really must traverse that statement altogether. We think there have been Select Committees of Inquiry enough already, and that another Select Committee is merely a plea for further delay. The second reason put forward by my hon. friend was that as the Government were committed to the appointment of a Committee on Municipal Trading, we are therefore stopped from objecting to further inquiry into this matter. Bat the Committee on Municipal Trading is in the air: we know nothing about it. It is quite true there was on the Paper a notice for the appointment of such a Committee, but it has disappeared. ("No, no!") At any rate it is not being proceeded with. Things occasionally hang about the Order book in a most mysterious manner, but at the same time they are known to be nothing but dead horses. Possibly there may be an intention of proceeding with the appointment of this Committee, but even if that be so there is nothing to justify further delay in this particular matter. On the contrary, I imagine the experience we would gain as to the working of the telephone system by municipal authorities, which would naturally come into existence slowly and gradually, might afford most important evidence for consideration by the Committee on the general subject of municipal trading. For the reason that no material change has taken place in the situation since my right hon. friend threw the whole responsibility on the Government for the course adopted as the only means of passing the Bill this session, I shall feel justified in supporting 898 the alternative of sending this Bill to the Standing Committee.
§ * MR. GEDGE (Walsall)
I wish to say something upon my own part and on the part of all those who wish to send this Bill to a Select Committee. All those who favour the Select Committee have been accused of having been lobbied and being interested in the National Telephone Company. The hon. Member for Shoreditch was particularly indignant on the last occasion this Bill was before the House, and spoke as if he were the only honest man in the House. Now, I do not know any one who has been what is called lobbied, or who has any improper motive in making, the request for a Select Committee. I certainly have no connection with the National Telephone Company other than that of a subscriber to their service, which might be better; and it is because it might be better and is not, that we all desire to see the telephones in other hands. At the same time there are several things that require to be thrashed out by a Select Committee, which could not be thrashed out by a Grand Committee. There is the financial question, for instance. As I understand there will be a waste of many thousands a year if the Government plan be adopted. Whether I am right or wrong in that it is a question of importance which must be gone into very carefully. Notice has been given of the appointment of a Joint Committee of the two Houses to consider the general question of the limits and conditions to be imposed on Municipal Trading. The noble Lord opposite describes this as a dead horse, but that could hardly be, when the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury, on behalf of the Government, gives formal notice for such a Committee. The Government must think it desirable and in the public interest, and if that is their opinion then we shall get the Committee appointed. Pending that Committee's enquiry and report, it is unwise to pass this Bill, which entrusts municipalities with the large operations all over the country, which the general extension of the telephonic system will necessitate. There are two sides to this question, and some of us think that this vast extension of municipal trading ought not to be allowed. Having regard to the way the Second Reading was sprung upon us we shall do what we can to prevent this Bill becoming law this year by voting for a Select Committee, because we do not think the Bill a good Bill.
§ SIR J. T. WOODHOUSE (Huddersfield)
The question before the House is whether this Bill shall be sent to a Grand Committee or a Select Committee. Those who are in favour of a Select Committee are, first of all, those who object to the extension of the telephone service to the municipalities; and, secondly, those who desire to kill the Bill under any circumstances. The terms of the reference to the Select Committee appointed last session by this House covered the whole of the ground which those who now ask for another Select Committee desire to be inquired into. Is it not trifling with the House to suggest, having regard to all the circumstances, that another Select Committee should sit upon this matter? No one can possibly allege that there is not an abundance of material before the House on which to form a clear and decided opinion upon the matter. Where was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for London University when the proposal was made last year to elect this Committee? Not a word of objection was raised then; yet, if exception was to be taken that was the time when it should have been done. It is not fair to the Committee who sat for so many weeks to suggest that all this matter should now be gone into again. Whilst wishing well to the progress of this Bill, I reserve fully my opinion of the alteration which has been suggested by the concessions made to the National Telephone Company. They may be wise or unwise; they are not yet reduced to such a position that they can be reported to the House, but I apprehend the House will have the right to amend this Bill on the Report stage.
§ SIR HARRY BULLARD (Norwich)
I thought that the Committee thrashed out the whole of this question. The Bill may not be perfect, but we shall have the privilege of making it so if we can on the report. I am one of those who would like to see progress made in this matter, and I cannot understand why so many members are hostile to so useful a measure. The National Telephone Company have done good work, but we want to see better work done, and this Bill will be conducive to that end, and that is the reason I support this going to the Grand Committee.
§ * MR. CHARLES MCARTHUR (Liverpool, Exchange)
I do not agree with the hon. Member that there is a desire on the 900 part of those who object to this Bill to impede the progress and development of telephonic communication. We desire to accelerate it, but we think the Bill before the House is calculated to rather retard and defeat that object than to accelerate it. I deprecate altogether the personalities which some members have thought fit to indulge in, in the course of this Debate, and I do not believe that anybody taking part in this Debate has been animated by any improper motive in desiring that the Bill should be sent to a Select Committee. Their only desire was that the progress of this Bill should be facilitated. What I wish to point out is that although reference has been made to the Report of the Committee of 1898, it is yet a fact that the Bill does not carry out the recommendations of that Committee.
§ Sin JOHN LENG (Dundee)
rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put"; but
§ * MR. SPEAKER
withheld his assent, because it appeared to him that the House was prepared shortly to come to a decision without that Motion.
§ MR. CHARLES MCARTHUR
One great reason why I think the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee is that many changes have been introduced into it. First, the Sanitary Districts objected, and they were included in the Bill. Then the company promoters and the subscribers had to be satisfied, and finally the National Telephone Company had to be satisfied, and really the only people who now remain out are the advocates of nationalisation. The Bill in its present form is most unsatisfactory.
§ * MR. CHARLES MCARTHUR
I can only ask the Government not to take this leap in the dark. We want further light on this subject, and that can only be obtained by referring the Bill to a Select Committee. On the ground that the Bill does not follow the recommendations of the previous Select Committee, I earnestly press that the matter be referred for further consideration to another Select Committee.
§ MR. COLVILLE (Lanark, N.E.)
I also sat upon the Select Committee of last year, and I have very great pleasure in 901 heartily supporting the right hon. Gentleman who proposes that this Bill should be referred to a Grand Committee. I agree with the hon. Member for Norwich that a reference to a Select Committee would merely mean delay. I differ from the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, and I think that a proposal to nationalise this very useful and necessary invention would have the effect of indefinitely postponing this Bill, which I trust will be referred to a Grand Committee and passed into law this year.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to:— Bill committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.