HC Deb 24 November 1909 vol 13 cc317-23

Question proposed, "That this Schedule stand part of the Bill."


I desire to move an Amendment as a matter of form, and with a view to eliciting some information about wireless telegraphy. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General to give us some information about the agreement under this Act which he announced on 30th September, and the terms on which he is taking over certain stations of the Marconi Company. The impression has been gaining ground that the country has gained a good deal over that transaction. I do not wish in any way to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman has not done what is advantageous to the public service, but I think, nevertheless, upon such information as I have been able to acquire, or such study as I have been able to give to the matter, that the advantages to the country are not half so great or——


Do I understand the hon. Gentleman seeks to move the omission of certain words in this Schedule? He is now talking, I understand, about a matter of administration that does not arise.


I was just explaining the point which I was going to submit. What I desire to do is not to move that this Act be not renewed, because I hold that the business which the right hon. Gentleman has transacted under the Act has produced a situation which ought to lead him to bring in another measure. If that is not in order, I would submit this: Has the right hon. Gentleman under this Act the power to do what he has done? Under the Wireless Telegraphy Act he spent £15,000 in acquiring certain rights from this company, and I do not believe that what he has bought for the £15,000 is worth 2d. He has merely got control of a number of minor patents, but I understand he has not got control or bought one of the most successful of the Marconi systems. Then these companies appear to have surrendered their coast stations and the licences for these coast stations, but they have retained the long-distance stations at Poldhu and Clifden, which are connected to the shores of this country and of America. Lloyds surrendered their stations and plant, and received the value of the plant. I should like to ask the Postmaster-General whether that plant is of any substantial value, and is the consideration the Government received adequate for what they gave for it? The right hon. Gentleman rather plumed himself upon the notion that he had done a valuable thing for the country when he prevented a monopoly growing up. I am not quite sure that he has done so. If you leave the most valuable portion of the business in the hands of the company, namely, the long-distance stations, you leave them with a valuable monopoly, although you get hold of the coast stations which may be a monopoly, but which are of no real commercial value. Has the right hon. Gentleman got any nearer to getting hold of these long-distance stations? Have the arrangements he has made given him any leverage or option to acquire these highly valuable stations?——


That purely is a question of the administration of the Act. The hon. Member is entitled to say that certain things are undesirable because the result is unsatisfactory, but he is not entitled to deal with the administration of the Act.


I do not wish to detain the House, or to transgress your ruling, but I think the right hon. Gentleman will bear me out when I say that he has once or twice informed the House that it would be necessary for him to introduce a measure dealing with wireless telegraphy which would give him larger powers. Not only that, but there is also the Radio-telegraph Convention, and I should have thought he would have taken the opportunity this Session of dealing with these matters, and not leaving things in, I will not say a state of muddle, but in the state of uncertainty and indefiniteness in which we find them now. I believe this agreement may be of some value, but he has paid too much for little and left the valuable monopoly untouched. I do not believe it is of the great value the right hon. Gentleman thinks, and I certainly hope in the reply which he will give he will tell us it is his intention to bring in a measure which will give him greater authority and which will bring the legislation of this country thoroughly abreast of the situation created by the International Radiotelegraph Convention. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will also inform us which countries are standing out of the Convention.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. Sydney Buxton)

The hon. Member has asked me a question in regard to the extension of this Act, and why it has been included in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. He has also asked me a question with regard to the purchase of the Marconi and Lloyds licences. The only reason why we have put this measure in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill is that, so far, we have had no reason to alter the Act. It has carried out all the objects we had in view, and there has been no reason for making any change. It is highly probable that in view of the Railway and Telegraphic Convention, and in view of the purchase of the Marconi and Lloyds stations by the Government, we may have to alter the Act, and when that time arrives, whoever, may be my successor, will certainly have to introduce a more comprehensive measure to deal with the situation. Up to the present moment there has been no reason whatever for altering the Act, and it is simpler for the Government, instead of renewing it for a number of years, to put it amongst the measures in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill.

The hon. Member is wrong in thinking that the purchase of the Marconi stations is likely to lead to a monopoly. On the contrary the purchase is likely to prevent a monopoly in wireless telegraphy, and it is an advantage from the point of view of the Admiralty. The Admiralty are anxious that these stations should be in the hands of the Government, and I have always said, both in this House and elsewhere, that it would be a mistake to allow a monopoly in wireless telegraphy to grow up. The hon. Member has objected to the terms of purchase. Does he recollect what occurred in the case of the telegraph and the telephone companies? In the former case about £11,000,000 were paid, and in the case of the telephones we have not yet come to arbitration, but it will probably amount to some millions. I think by purchasing for £15,000 we have not made a bad bargain at all. We have obtained all the wireless coast and ship stations both from Lloyd's and the Marconi Company, we have obtained the use of all the Marconi patents for 15 years, and, what is more, we have obtained a free hand to deal with these various licences by the best method from a strategic and commercial point of view. In my opinion the bargain we have made is a very satisfactory one. The hon. Member says that we have left out the long distance stations, and that is perfectly true. That question, however, does not come within the purview of the Post Office in the same way as the coastal and ship stations. We do not think the time has arrived for the purchase of the long distance stations, for the reason that while the ship-to-shore stations have a commercial value and are doing considerable commercial work the long distance stations, although successful, are not yet upon a commercial basis, and in no sense can a monopoly grow up in regard to them, because we are at liberty to start such stations ourselves. Therefore the question of monopoly does not really arise. I think it a great advantage that the Post Office should have possession of this new feature in our electrical communications, which, in my opinion, is going to have very great extensions in the next few years. It is a great advantage that we should have it at this early stage, and that, as I think, we should be able at a very cheap rate indeed to purchase these various licences and have full control of it. I do not think the Committee will think that in paying £15,000 for the land and the stations, the machinery, the licences, and the use of the patents we have given an extravagant sum. On the other hand, I consider we have made a very good bargain. I hope, under these circumstances, my hon. Friend will be satisfied that so far as the Post Office is concerned we have made a very good business bargain with these companies.


In asking leave to withdraw my Amendment, may I ask whether it is true that the Marconi Company have refused to interchange messages with other vessels to prevent loss of life and property an. cases of disaster at sea?


I think the hon Member is misinformed. It is exactly the opposite. The Marconi Company, I think very foolishly, objected very much to the Radio-Telegraph Convention and refused at that time to inter-communicate with other ships, but I am glad to say they have been brought to a better frame of mind since the Convention was passed, and they have agreed voluntarily—though if they had not agreed I should probably have had some opportunity of enforcing them—to give communication from their stations to Others under the Convention. Therefore, so far as they are now left in possession of stations, they are really carrying on their business under the Radio-Telegraph Convention.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I desire to ask why the Agricultural Rates Act of 1896 and the corresponding one of the same year are only renewed for nine months, while every other Bill in the Schedule is renewed for a year.


The reason is a somewhat simple one. It is solely with a view to securing uniformity an regard to the period at which all these Bills terminate and are to be renewed under the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. All these Bills will now be uniform and end at the end of the year. The contributions to the Local Authorities will not be prejudiced in any way.


The explanation is scarcely satisfactory. Of course, the Treasury cannot make grants without an Act of Parliament, and those who have benefited under these Acts hitherto will only have the three-fourths of the security they have had previously.


Three-quarters for the first year and subsequently the usual amount for twelve months every time the Bill is renewed.


I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury whether, in the event of his occupying the same position in the next Parliament, he will give effect to his pledge in past years that something should be done to evolve order out of chaos in regard to these statutes. I have raised this question year after year, and on some occasions I have received a large measure of support. I remember that one night we debated these statutes for 27 hours. I do not think there is much chance of our doing so to-night, seeing that at this moment there is only one Unionist in the House. But those who cordially and most heartily supported my protest against this Bill on previous occasions have since got jobs and are sitting on the Government Benches. Anybody who looks at the Division Lists in previous years will find them adorned with such names as Churchill, Runciman, Pease, and Evans, the names of men who took an active and energetic part with me and made eloquent speeches in regard to the absurd manner in which this Bill is brought forward, but who now are not making the slightest effort to deal with this state of things. Under this Bill we re-enact 40 Bills. I got a register of the laws we are dealing with in connection with this Bill and I find that we are also concerned with 65 temporary laws. I do not think anyone will contradict me when I say that no man sitting here to-night has the remotest idea of what laws we are going to pass in this Bill. There is, for instance, the Textile Manufactures (Ireland) Act, which is absolutely obsolete, for it prohibits manufacturers in Ireland from doing what every one of them is doing at the present time. Then there is the Ordnance Survey Act, 1841, which was passed to authorise a survey of Great Britain and Berwick-on-Tweed. Where is Berwick-on-Tweed if not in Great Britain? Can the Attorney-General tell me why it is called Great Britain and Berwick-on-Tweed? In any case that Bill was passed seventy years ago, and surely now the survey has been concluded. Then we have the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act, and with it a reference to 18 other Corrupt Practices Acts. What is the good of them? Corrupt practices still go on. I submit that these Acts ought to be consolidated.

The CHAIRMAN (Mr. Emmott)

If the hon. Member objects to the inclusion of these Acts, he should have moved Amendments at the proper time. He cannot go through the whole Schedule and deal with them in detail now.


I do not propose to deal with them in detail; I want to prove my contention that this is an archaic and absolutely impossible method of legislation. I am only referring to these measures cursorily. There is the Act with regard to Locomotives on Turnpike Roads. I do not know where the turnpike loads are now to be found. In view of the obsolete character of many of these Acts I think that some thing really ought to be done to put this on a workmanlike basis. This House suffers from a surfeit of lawyers, good, bad, and indifferent. Could not the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury ask some half-dozen of them to sit down and separate the wheat from the chaff, to tell us which are good Bills and should be made permanent, and which are obsolete and should be dropped out of this Act altogether? Imagine the Ballot Act being treated as a temporary law, and our being asked solemnly year after year to enact that elections shall be conducted by ballot! I think the case for some sort of inquiry is overwhelming, and I would ask the Patronage Secretary to give some definite promise that if he holds his present position in the next Parliament—and I hope he may—he will take this matter.seriously into consideration with a view to producing a more workmanlike Bill than the present one.


In regard to next year, I am very sanguine that I shall be sitting on this side of the House. All I can say in reference to this matter as to the promises I have given in the past is that I conveyed to the hon. Member that I would see whether investigation could be made into the various Acts included in the Schedules of this Bill, but it was not worth hon. Members' time to be appointed on a Committee. I would suggest to the hon. Member that if he is here next Session or in the next Parliament he should address a question to the Prime Minister, who will no doubt take into consideration any representations made on this subject.

First Schedule, Second Schedule, and Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.