HC Deb 22 July 1907 vol 178 cc1225-30

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."

*MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)

said he was sorry that the Postmaster-General was not in his place. He moved the rejection of this Bill as a protest against the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman had conducted it through Committee and on Report. On the Motion for the Second Reading he moved an Amendment asking that accounts should be produced "showing the financial results of the past working of the Post Office telegraphs and telephones judged from the standpoint of an ordinary commercial undertaking." The Post master-General in reply was most conciliatory, and promised to consider dining the recess how the accounts could be presented in a more lucid way. The House had a right to ask that this promise should be redeemed in the spirit as well as in the letter, but the Postmaster-General, by refusing to accept Amendments in Committee and on Report, had placed himself outside the control of the House. If he chose he might simply produce another official statement. The present official statement; was absolutely useless. If they deducted from the total sum the amount attributed to telephones they would find an enormous increase in telegraph expenditure, although during the past five years there had been an actual reduction in the number sent. The number of telegrams had fallen from 90,500,000 to 89,500,000, and the cost had gone up to £42 per 1,000 as compared with £36 six years ago. The Postmaster-General was in this dilemma, either the telegraphs had been badly managed or the telegrams accounts had been overloaded to show a profit on the telephones accounts. That proved to him that what was wanted was something more than an official statement. What was wanted was an overhauling of the Post Office accounts by a competent business" man. But there was no guarantee at present that there would be anything of the kind. The Postmaster-General in the Second Reading debate said in the most conciliatory and courteous manner that he welcomed the discussion that was raised, and said it would strengthen his hands in dealing with the claims made upon him by outsiders; but suddenly he changed his attitude, and the only explanation he knew was that the right hon. Gentleman found that the Bill, instead of going before Committee of the Whole House, was to go to a Standing Committee, where it was disposed of in five minutes. Therefore he contended that he was justified in opposing the Third Reading, because there was no guarantee that they would get the proper statement of counts which had been promised. He was surprised that a Money Bill of such a character, next to the Finance Bill the most important Money Bill of the session, should be sent to a Standing Committee. It seemed to him that that was against the intention with which the Committee procedure was instituted. There were a good many Bills about which they made a fuss on both sides of the House, and which in a few years would be entirely forgotten, whereas this was a Bill to extract £6,000,000 from the pockets of the taxpayers. No doubt, certain con cessions were made in the drafting of the Bill, but they were to' the advantage of the Government. No better illustration of the evils of legislation by reference could be furnished than the disclosure, when the Postmaster-General came to put the clause on paper, of the fact that the reference would have re-enacted something to which the Treasury Had strong objection. It further showed the carelessness of the officials in drafting the Bill. They were not business men, and this business Department was so mismanaged that it was a big business failure. It would be invidious to mention present officials, but there had been many distinguished men connected with the Department who were yet quite un qualified by previous training for the duties that fell to them. To mention two names, there was Sir Spencer Walpole, a distinguished man who had written a valuable history of England, and who had served as the Governor of the Isle of Man, and again there was Mr. Buxton Forman, who had edited a life of Shelley; these were men of great capacity, but they were not business men. The appointment of the latter to the Post Office was jocularly defended on the ground that he was "a man of letters." But Post Office officials had to deal with shrewd business men in the matter of contracts, and the purchase of materials and of patent rights. They had the disposal of £19,000,000 a year of public money. Yet they could not even draft a Bill; they could not do a sum in simple interest; and they could not give the same figures for the same item on different pages. He did not think it was at all surprising that money was lost in connection with the Post Office at an ever-increasing rate. The accounts and the whole conduct of the business showed that the officials were not qualified for the work. This was shown in the 3d. a mile express messages system. Upon this the Department lost money, while at the same time competing against its own 6d. telegrams. So also with the telephone charges on short distance trunk lines; though the cost was greater the charge was lower. The charge was 3d. for twenty-five miles and 6d. for fifty miles for a three-minute service, whereas a telegram which occupied the wires for less than half a minute cost sixpence. In this way the Postmaster-General was actually using the nation's capital invested in telephones to destroy the nation's capital invested in telegraphs. If these matters were left to private enterprise, one set of capitalists would ruin the other, and that was the desire, he under stood, of the Labour party, while the whole nation would profit. But in this case, owing to the false policy of compelling the State to undertake this business, it was the taxpayers who paid, and taxes were laid on the neces- saries of life to make up loss on telegraph and telephone services. It was en interesting illustration of what was meant by Stat Socialism to find the Labour Party walking into the Government lobby like a flock of sheep in support of a Bill calculated to subsidise the rich at the expense of the poor. He moved the rejection of the Bill.

MR. WATT (Glasgow, College)

said he desired to second the Motion so ably proposed by his hon. friend. He ventured to think that the Postmaster-General had adopted a wrong system. The right hon. Gentleman had the misfortune at the present moment to-j be the manager of a losing Department of the Government. There was a loss of £1,000,000 per annum on the telegraph system, and in the face of that important fact the Postmaster-General came to the House and asked the large sum of £6,000,000. When it was suggested in Committee that instead of getting the whole of that amount at one fell swoop, he should come to the House after £1,500,000 had been expended and ask for a further donation towards his-scheme, he rejected the suggestion with scorn. A Government pledged to economy, and also to the retention of control by the House of Commons over the expenditure of the country, ought to have accepted the Amendment to give effect to that suggestion. No-business man would adopt the system proposed by this Bill, and give to the manager of a losing concern carte blanche to do as he liked with £6,000,000, and to account to no one until four or five years had passed.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words ' upon this, day three months.'"—(Mr. Harold Cox.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now,' stand part of the Question."


regretted to hear that the Postmaster-General was pre vented by illness from attending, and that he would probably not be able to be in his place for a fortnight. In the circumstances the debate would be taken under two inconveniences—one, that it would encroach on the time devoted to the Evicted Tenants Bill, and the other that the Postmaster-General could not be present to meet face to face the ingenious Gentleman who had at tacked his measure from below the gangway. The Government were very anxious to get on with the Bill, not only in connection with their scheme of business, but on account of some need of money; but he should think that they must feel that they ought to postpone the discussion of this measure on both the grounds he had stated, and that they ought to be discussing other Bills. In these circum stances, he suggested to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the temporary absence of the Leader of the House, whether it would not be desirable to postpone the debate for a fortnight, in the hope that the Postmaster-General would then be restored, as they all desired to see him restored, to his accustomed health. He begged to move that the debate be now adjourned.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)


said he had no departmental responsibility for this Bill and was not in a position to enter into its details. The Bill had been put down in the belief that it would be treated as a non-contentious measure and that there was something like a general agreement upon it. In fact it was put down as the first Order so that that day might not be counted as an allotted day for the Evicted Tenants Bill. Only the Patronage Secretary knew of the unfortunate illness of the Postmaster-General at the opening of the sitting. If the right hon. Gentleman persisted in his Motion—he was not speaking in any hostile sense—if the right hon. Gentleman thought that there was such a body of real, genuine criticism prepared to be made on this Bill, he must aquiesce; but the Bill could not be postponed for a fortnight, before which the Postmaster-General could not be present. In the course of a few days there would be some Minister capable of dealing with any question which might arise.


said he had made no inquiry among his own friends as to whether there was any desire to discuss the Bill at length, but from speeches to which he had listened he thought there was some reason for the postponement of the debate.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.