HC Deb 26 July 1907 vol 179 cc365-9

Order read, for resuming adjourned Debate on Amendment to Question [22nd July], "That the Bill be now read the third time."

Which Amendment was, 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 again proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

*MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)

said he desired to make a personal explanation. He had received a letter from the Postmaster - General, who had seen a curtailed report of his speech the other night, and his right hon. friend said that that report appeared to show that he had accused him of a breach of faith in not having produced a full statement of accounts before the final passage of the Bill. It would be in the recollection of the House that he had said nothing of the kind, and that there was nothing in the circumstances of the case to induce him to say it. All that he did say was that the Postmaster-General, having heard the discussion on the Second Reading and having promised a full statement of accounts, ought to have completed that promise by giving the House an opportunity a year or two hence of seeing what accounts he had produced and what were the results which they disclosed. He complained that the Postmaster-General, by refusing to accept the Amendments in Committee or on report, had denied that opportunity to the House. In that his right hon. friend disagreed with him: but a difference of opinion was a very different thing from a breach of faith. When he spoke last Monday he was in ignorance that the Postmaster-General was ill. One could not always know what effect one's words produced, but he sincerely hoped he had said nothing that even sounded discourteous.


said there were very serious objections to this Bill, and the objections which had been raised on both sides had not been met. It would be in the recollection of the House that his hon. friend the Member for Preston raised a very serious point upon the large expenditure of money involved in the Bill, and the Postmaster - General endeavoured to minimise it by saying that no larger sum than a million and a half should be spent in any one year, and though hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House and, to the best of his recollection, some hon. Members on the other side of the House, endeavoured to make that assurance certain by inserting words in the Bill the Postmaster-General refused to accept their Amendments. It was an extremely unfortunate thing that this moment, when the finances of the country were in such a bad state, should be chosen to raise so large a sum as six millions of money, and when in the opinion of many it was not necessary that that sum should be spent. They had pointed out that large sums would be required for the telephone service within the next three or four years, and their desire was that a smaller sum should be taken now to meet the ordinary requirements in lieu of the very large sum which the Postmaster-General asked for. The Postmaster-General endeavoured to meet their fears by saying that a public loan would not be required, but that the money would be provided by some department which at the moment happened to have a surplus. He did not recollect that the right hon. Gentleman said what department would find the money, but it did not make any difference as far as regarded the financial aspect of the case, because if the money was to be found by certain departments it was to be taken away from some other object, and, therefore, what they feared were the future inroads which must be made upon the money market. The Bill was rather a striking commentary upon the maxims of hon. Gentlemen opposite when his hon. friends were in power. Nothing then more aroused their ire than borrowing money on capital account to meet the really necessary expenditure of the nation—money to provide for efficient fortifications and for a strong Navy, which were, in his estimation, the most important things the country could provide for. Yet they were told that it was the very worst form of finance to raise money on capital account for those purposes. Here, however, was a question which was not urgent at all, and which could not be considered as a national question, and yet the Government proceeded to borrow six millions of money at a time when the money market was in a far worse condition than at any time when the present Opposition were in power. There had been a fall of eight points in Consols since hon. Gentlemen opposite came into power. He thought it right that a protest should be made on that side of the House, especially having regard to the fact that every day showed them that the statements and opinions of hon. Gentlemen opposite when in Opposition were vastly different from their actions when in power.

*MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

said that although he would not say in the absence of the Postmaster-General a word which he would not say to his face, the general policy of the Bill must have been shared in by the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues. This Bill proposed to raise a sum by annuities spread over a term. The late Government did the same thing in regard to works not less necessary and which were equally permanent, and the late Sir William Harcourt got up and said they were resorting to the methods of the "Extraordinary Budget," and imitating the ways of "South American Finance."

CAPTAIN NORTON (Newington, W.)

thought he was in a position to satisfy his hon. friend the Member for Preston, and also the other hon. Members who had spoken in this matter. He was fortunate enough to see his right hon. friend the Postmaster-General that morning and he desired him to express to the hon. Member for Preston his regret that he was unable to be present to defend his Department, and to explain the action which he had taken. The hon. Member for Preston had on a former occasion drawn attention to the fact that the ordinary financial statement made by the Post Office was not perhaps the best, and the Postmaster-General undertook to look into the matter. The Postmaster-General was now looking into the matter, and he had authorised him to state that he would, in consultation with the Treasury, endeavour to carry out the views of the hon. Gentleman in a way which, he believed, would be acceptable to his hon. friend. There were one or two other matters to which the hon. Member for Preston drew attention. As to the express messenger system, one of the reasons why the 3d. charge was retained was that we were under an international agreement and were bound to deliver 3d. letters from abroad, and therefore it would be invidious to make a distinction between home and foreign letters. But to show that the Postmaster-General was aware of the necessity of protecting and of making as large a profit for the Post Office as possible, six months ago he took the opportunity of making an extra charge of 3d. whenever any parcel was sent under the guise of a letter. With reference to the remarks made by the hon. Baronet the Member for the City who complained of the sum of £6,000,000 being taken, he begged to point out that seeing it was all raised by the creation of annuities annually provided for out of the Post Office Vote there was ample opportunity for the House to discuss the matter every year. In addition to that an opportunity would be provided for dealing with this question in three years, possibly, and certainly in four years, when in 1911 the whole of the telephone system would be taken over. Precedents showed that four years was by no moans an extensive life for a Telephone Bill, inasmuch as the Telephone Bill of 1902 lived for four years, and that of 1900 for five years. The Post Office was doing nothing unusual in taking the whole sum of money at the present time, especially as the House was protected by the fact that they could deal with this question annually in addition to the present time and four years hence.

MR. GRETTON (Rutland)

said he wished to express on this occasion—the last on which he would have an opportunity of doing so in this House—the gratification with which he heard the remarks of the hon. Member who had just spoken on behalf of the Postmaster-General. The complaint that he and others had made was that the representative of the Department came down with a view of asking for a large expenditure of money and was not prepared to offer any explanation of the Telephone Department of the Post Office while prepared vastly to increase the expenditure on the telephone system. He would take this opportunity of saying that he was glad, and he thought many members on the Opposition side were glad, to hear that the Post Office would next year—he believed he was not going beyond the statement of the hon. Member who had just spoken—present accounts to Parliament which would state clearly the exact financial position of the telephone system of the Post Office. He thought the action that they had taken in this matter had been justified by the results. So far as the raising of this large sum of money was concerned he must say that he looked with great alarm upon the inroads which this loan must inevitably make upon the money market at the present time. He knew the Government took a sanguine view of the position in the City. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stated the other day that he expected a rise in the price of Consols and other securities. Since that statement was made he noticed that all the great funds and chief stock in the City had fallen, and there seemed no immediate prospect that the money market would improve. However it was useless, of course, to oppose this Bill, and he did not propose to prolong his opposition to it. In this case he was satisfied with the undertaking of the Government, and he proposed to go no further.


said that, in view of the explicit assurances of the hon. and gallant Member for Newington on behalf of the Postmaster-General in regard to the preparation of accounts, he would ask leave to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.