§ As amended (by the Standing Committee), further considered.
§ MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)
said he gathered that the Postmaster-General was willing to accept an Amendment to Clause 1, of which notice had been given by the hon. Member for Lambeth. He therefore begged to move.
Amendment proposed to the Bill—In page 1, line 12, to leave out the words The Telegraph Acts, 1833 to 1903,' and insert 1024 the words ' developing the telephonic system aforesaid.'"—(Mr. Harold Cox.)
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ SIR F. BANBURY (City of London)
moved an Amendment providing that the Estimates sanctioned by the Treasury for the sum annually required must be laid upon the Table of the House of Commons for thirty days. He said the object of his Amendment was to afford the House of Commons effective control over this expenditure. As the Bill was framed the only control over this expenditure of £6,000,000, would be the control of the Treasury, and he desired that in addition to that, the House of Commons should have some means of ascertaining what sum was going to be expended and how it was to be spent. He therefore thought it would be reasonable to allow the Estimates which had been sanctioned by the Treasury to appear for a short time upon the Table of the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman would probably agree with him that there was not much involved in conceding the Amendment, because, unless there was very strong feeling against the proposals of the Post Office, it would not hamper the proceedings of that Department, and it was only in the event of any expenditure which created any objection or against which there was any prejudice that any action would be taken. The Amendment would, however, preserve to the House of Commons at the last moment the right to require some explanation, and he trusted the Post master-General would accept it.
§ MR. T. L. CORBETT (Down, N.)
seconded, and said he considered that in view of the expenditure of large sums of money the Amendment only contained a fair and reasonable proposal, because it would secure adequate control by the House. They were entitled to protest against the growing tendency of Governments to disregard the authority of the House in regard to expenditure. If the Government would not accept an Amendment of this kind the House of Commons might as well be dissolved and the Cabinet put in charge of all these matters.
Amendment proposed to the Bill—In page 1, line 13, after the word 'Treasury' to insert the words ' and after such 1025 Estimates have been laid upon the Table of the the House for thirty days.'"—(Sir F. Ban-bury.)
§ Question proposed, "That these words be there inserted."
§ *SIR FRANCIS POWELL (Wigan)
hoped the Postmaster-General would accede to this request. The proposal contained in the Bill was a novel one and previous applications for money made by the Post Office in this respect had not gone beyond £4,000,000. Now it was proposed to give them £6,000,000 by a somewhat rough and ready procedure. The proposal of the hon. Baronet was that the House should have the power of criticising the action of the Government, but as the matter stood now they did not know whether or when they would have an opportunity of discussing the Estimate. The enormous figures involved in the Education Vote had not been debated except for a very few minutes this year; and even then the Minister in charge of the Vote did not condescend to explain matters. He was certain that every Member of the House would watch with jealousy the increasing power of the Executive, because the House of Commons was rapidly losing that power of control which was an important part of our Parliamentary history and tradition. As an old Member of the House he urged that this tendency should lie resisted by every possible means.
§ THE POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. SYDNEY BUXTON, Tower Hamlets, Poplar)
said he could not accept the Amendment for the reason that it was quite a new proposal with regard to a Loan Bill. The House had endorsed the view of the Government that there should be this loan of £6,000,000 for telephone purposes, and that being so the discretion in regard to the expenditure must necessarily remain with the Post Office and the Treasury. He had already given an assurance that the money would be spent only for the extension of the telephone system, and that the expenditure in any one year would probably not exceed £1,500,000. It would be quite impossible to carry out the expenditure of the loan under the conditions proposed by the hon. Baronet. Such a proposal would, when the House was out of session, hang up for six months 1026 necessary expenditure. The Post Office could never tell what was the particular expenditure required at a particular moment, and if the expenditure was liable be cease for half a year when the House was not sitting, they would not be able to increase and carry on properly the telephone system for the convenience of the public. In any case it appeared to him that, when they had to deal with a Bill of this sort, the expenditure of the money must be left to the discretion of the Minister in charge of the Department, and when money was required to carry out telephone works it should be at once available. He had assured the House that these moneys would be properly expended, and for the reason he had given he could not. accept the Amendment.
§ LORD BALCARRES (Lancashire, Chorley)
said ho had listened with some surprise to the Postmaster-General, who had said they could never tell what the amount of expenditure was going to be. Why could not they tell the precise amount?
§ MR. SYDNEY BUXTON
remarked that what he had said was that many of the items of expenditure could not be anticipated, and, if the House was not sitting, under the Amendment the money could not be obtained. Therefore, during the time the House was not sitting the telephone service might be defective.
§ LORD BALCARRES
said that what he wanted to draw the particular attention of the House to was the extraordinary divergence between the policy as to this telephone loan and the policy of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues in respect to loans for naval and military works proposed by the Government during the last Parliament. It was a permanent source of complaint against the last two Governments that large sums of money were obtained by loan for naval and military works. When the present Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed office he, with the assent of the naval and military authorities, announced his intention of not continuing that system of loans. The money, spent by means of loans on naval and military works was in his judgment precisely analogous to the money to be spent under this Bill for telephone works. The naval and military works expenditure now appeared on the Estimates, where as the telephone works expenditure was 1027 raised under a statute. Would the right hon. Gentleman tell them what was the distinction?
§ *MR. SPEAKER
said that that did not seem to him to be relevant to this Amendment, but only to the Bill as a whole.
§ LORD BALCARRES
apologised for having dropped into a Second Reading argument. He thought the Estimates for telephone works should be laid on the Table of the House, and he wanted to know why the right hon. Gentleman would not do for telephone works what the other Departments did for naval and military works. There was an analogy between the two cases, but in this case the Postmaster General departed from what had been laid down as necessary for financial security and had not met the Amendment in any way. He could not understand why the right hon. Gentleman was afraid of discussion of Estimates by the House of Commons. If the right hon. Gentleman put too much in his Estimate for any one year, the money was handed back to the Treasury and in the ordinary course of events would be recredited to his Department for telephone purposes. If he spent more money than was authorised by the Estimate it was a commonplace to say that the Treasury would provide the necessary money and see that the expenditure was properly authorised later on. As he had said, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues disliked the discussion of Estimates in the House, and it was quite clear that there would be fewer days allotted to Supply in this session than in any session during the last twenty years. He objected most strongly to giving a Department power to spend enormous sums of money and to the withdrawal of the control of the House over these sums. The House of Commons should have some power of revising telephone expenditure and the rates charged for telephone services. It would under this proposal be impossible to have regular and systematic discussions on the subject. The discretion, the Postmaster General said, must rest with the Post Office, but he differed from that proposition, and he objected in regard to these gigantic loans that the House of Commons should be superseded by the Treasury and the Post Office.
§ MR. HAROLD COX
hoped the Post master-General would think over his objection to accept this Amendment, which was a perfectly reasonable one. If the right hon. Gentleman had accepted his Amendment to reduce the sum of £6,000,000 to £3,000,000 he would not have pressed this point, because in two years they would have had the power of revising the expenditure; but the right hon. Gentleman had taken power to spend £6,000,000 and to take it out of the control of Parliament for four years at least. That was a proposal against which they protested. They had always protested against the Loan Bills of the last Government, but now the right hon. Gentleman was doing the same thing. Why could not the right hon. Gentleman lay his Estimate before the House? The House would not assent to such a course as this in the case of the Army and Navy, in which larger sums were dealt with, and he did not see why the Postmaster-General should not put on paper how he proposed to spend each year £1,500,000 of the loan and lay it before Parliament during the session. As far as he could see, there would be no public control over this expenditure, and it would only be a question between the permanent officials of the Treasury and the permanent officials of the Post Office. It was one of the elementary maxims of Liberal finance that there should be popular control over expenditure, and he sincerely trusted the right hon. Gentleman would reconsider his decision.
§ MR. WATT (Glasgow, College)
also supported the Amendment. He did not think it was asking too much to request the Postmaster-General, when he got £6,000,000 on loan, to lay the Estimates before the House.
§ *MR. CARLILE (Hertfordshire, St. Albans)
supported the Amendment, as he was sure that the more opporunities were given to the House of Commons for thoroughly discussing and considering such a proposition as that contained in the Bill the more it would be for the advantage of the public service. It seemed to him very strange that upon a proposal of this kind they should have almost absolute silence on the part of Liberal Members of the House. With the exception of the hon. 1029 Member for Preston, who always came to the rescue on these occasions with his well-reasoned speeches, and the hon. Member behind him, nobody had spoken from the benches opposite. The right hon. Gentleman said that if the Amendment were accepted expenditure might be hung up for six months. But for himself he did not think that that was likely to occur. The eminently reason able proposal of his hon. friend was that the House should for thirty days before the money was parted with have an opportunity of dealing with any proposal to allocate part of this large sum. The delay, therefore, would not exceed thirty days. The House was getting more and more jealous of the dictation and control of the Cabinet in such matters. Why should the Cabinet ask for a blank cheque up to £6,000,000 and claim a free hand to deal with that sum just as they pleased in the case of telephones? If the proposals were laid on the Table the House would have an opportunity of considering them and taking such stops as they considered
§ likely to promote not only the efficiency of the public service, but also the principle of economy, which was one of the alleged grounds for Liberal Members being returned to the House in such overwhelming numbers. The hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London, representing as he did a vast commercial centre, had a special interest in this matter, and he hoped the Postmaster-General would meet the proposal in a manner becoming of his great position. The time was very near when the whole system of telephones would have to be reconsidered; it was doubly important, therefore, that this matter should be discussed, so that when in 1911 the whole system was taken over they should not have to look back on the work that had been done and realise that there had been excessive waste, which there would be if the Amendment was not accepted.
§ Question put.
§ The House divided:—Ayes, 20; Noes, 107. (Division List No. 291.)1031
§ MR. SYDNEY BUXTON
said the Amendment he now moved was an agreed Amendment put down at the desire of the Grand Committee.
Amendment proposed to the Bill—In page 1, line 13, to leave out from the word 'Treasury,' to end of clause, and insert, 'The Treasury may, if they think fit, with a view to provide money for sums so authorised to be issued out of the Consolidated Fund, or for repaying to that Fund all or any part of the sums so issued, borrow by means of terminable annuities, for a term not exceeding twenty years, and all sums so borrowed shall be paid into the Exchequer. The said annuities shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament for the service of the Post Office, and, if those moneys are insufficient, shall be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom or the growing produce thereof, at such times in each year as may be fixed by the Treasury.'" — (Mr. Sydney Buxton..)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to he left out stand part of the Bill."
§ MR. HAROLD COX
asked for some explanation as to why the right hon. Gentleman had only put down two paragraphs instead of three as agreed in the Committee upstairs.
§ SIR F. BANBURY
thought that that was so and congratulated the right hon. Gentleman in having taken the course he had, which enabled anyone who read the Bill to see what these Acts were. But he would like to know why the right hon. Gentleman had left out the three lines which came at the end of Subsection 3.
§ MR. SYDNEY BUXTON
said they were left out because it left the hands of the Treasury free in prescribing these 1032 annuities. They were all interdepartmental annuities, and there was some restriction in these words, and, therefore, it had been the practice of the Treasury for some years to omit them in these Bills.
§ MR. GRETTON (Rutland)
said he did not wish to delay the House on these technical points, but he would like to call attention to the fact that this was only another instance, of which there were many in Grand Committee, of the careless drafting of Government Bills. It certainly did not tend to the expeditious conduct of business either in this House or Committees upstairs.
§ Question put, and negatived.
§ Proposed words there inserted.
§ Bill to be read the third time on Monday next.