HC Deb 16 August 1911 vol 29 cc2019-25

I hope the Secretary to the Treasury will not be affrighted when I say that I want to speak a few words upon the question of the policy of the Development Commissioners, especially when I tell him that I do not intend to deal with any of the points dealt with in the discussion last evening. The particular point to which I desire to draw attention is the question of the policy of the Development Commissioners with regard to the establishment of motor services in the rural districts, not only of Ireland, but of the other parts of the United Kingdom. My justification for referring to this matter on this occasion is to be found in a speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this House on the 6th of September, 1909. I think it is so important that really some other occasion besides this, or in addition to this, ought to be afforded for discussing this very important question. On 6th September, 1909, the Chancellor was giving an explanation as to the Development and Road Improvement Fund, and one of the points on which he dwelt with great emphasis was that of the improvement of transit facilities in rural districts. The passage of the Chancellor's speech, to which too much importance cannot be attached, and which forms the justification for my referring to the matter, was as follows:— The landlords have not taken advantage of information of that kind. I believe gradually that confidence is given, and if there is a real systematic effort made from outside to organise co-operation, I believe this country will begin to realise that the only way of competing with other countries like Denmark and Belgium and Brittany is by such a system of co-operation coupled with great improvements in the transportation arrangements of this country. I have had to deal with these matters at the Board of Trade, and with regard to light railways, for instance, there are several parts of this country where light railways are needed, but where there is no rich man who will undertake the work. The landlords may be poor, the tenant farmers cannot find the money, and there is no great capitalist to come forward with money for the purposes of development. It is just as essential for the development of these districts as making a road. The community never ask when money is raised for a road whether it is going to pay 1, 2, 3, or 4 per cent. They see it is necessary for the opening up of that part of the country and to provide facilities there, and the same thing applies to other forms of transport that will enable people to bring their goods into the market, and for that reason— This is a very important, remarkable expression— I put in the forefront of the Bill the improvement of transport for the poorer and more thinly populated parts of the country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th Sept. 1909, Vol. X., cols. 968–9.] I am one of those who were greatly impressed by that speech, and particularly by the passage I have just quoted. It seemed to promise a development in precisely those parts of the country, especially of Ireland, where development is most seriously needed. I thought it a remarkable thing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not only in the Bill, but in the speech explaining the Bill, should put in the forefront, to use his own expression, the question of the improvement of transportation facilities. I have looked with some anxiety to see how that promise held out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been fulfilled by the Development Commissioners. I make every allowance for a body of this kind during the first year of their existence. I know that they have to establish principles of procedure and to lay down certain rules and regulations, and that everything which one might desire cannot be accomplished at once. Nevertheless, it is a fact that nothing whatever has been done in regard to this matter. That is hardly the worst, because—as I pointed out in a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about a week ago, the Commission have lately come to certain conclusions as to the policy they will pursue, particularly in regard to the establishment of motor services for the transportation of agricultural produce. I thought myself they would have directed their attention specially to this matter, inasmuch as it will be in the recollection of the Secretary to the Treasury that a few years ago, in the time of the late Government, a large scheme for the establishment of a motor service throughout Ireland was adumbrated by Lord Iveagh and Lord Pirie. The scheme was trumpeted abroad by the then Chief Secretary for Ireland, but we have never heard anything about it since. It was an idea which commended itself to a very large section of the public, not only in Ireland, but in this country, who thought that the scheme would be equally advantageous to the remote rural districts of Great Britain. That circumstance might well have drawn the attention of the Development Commission to the question in Ireland, when they had a fund expressly for the purpose, and it might have led them to form some scheme earlier for giving effect to the undoubted intentions of the Act and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not only have they not done anything, but in the opinion they have recently expressed they have taken a line calculated to put an end to all schemes of the kind in future.

I drew the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the principal conditions laid down by the Commissioners, the first of those conditions being that no money was to be advanced except by way of loan. I should have thought that, having the power to advance money either by way of loan or by way of grant, or partly by way of loan and partly by way of grant, they would have borne in mind the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which distinctly contemplated the existence of places where the offer of a loan would be a mere mockery, and where only a grant would be of any use whatever. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of poor and thinly populated districts; he spoke of there being no rich men in the neighbourhood capable of advancing money for the purpose; he spoke of the ratepayers being unable to supply the money. The fact that he laid stress upon such a state of things showed that he knew there were such places in Ireland, and gave a distinct intimation that the Commissioners were to bear that circumstance in mind when they came to translate the Act into terms of pounds, shillings, and pence. But when they advise all the parties concerned that they will not make grants, and that they will advance money only by way of loan, they are flying in the face of that distinct intimidation, and defeating the very object and policy of the Act in regard to this particular matter. There are other conditions of a somewhat similar character. Apparently the persons who are to receive the loan are not only to repay it, but also to supply the money for the maintenance of the motor service when established. In my opinion, to tell a thinly-populated rural district of Ireland—and I know what I am talking about, because I represent a county which contains one of these districts, and my remarks will probably apply to certain parts of England as well —that they can only get a loan, that they must repay the money, and that they must maintain the service at their own cost, is to tell them that they must do without a service altogether. I tell the right hon. Gentleman to-night, and I would tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he was here, that to make such a proposal to them is a mere mockery, and perfectly futile. I want to make one admission, and it is also, I think, to some extent a charge against the Government, namely, that the Development Commissioners are not entirely to blame. In point of fact, the Development Fund Act is in certain extent to blame.

Let me explain. Advances may be made by way of loan, or by way of grant, by a Government Department, or through a Government Department to some local authority, or through a Government Department to a body competent, and not formed for the purposes of profit. The way the matter works out is this: say a county council in Ireland applies for a grant or for a loan. It must repay the loan and the interest upon that loan, and not only that, but it must pay for the cost of maintenance. Not only that, but if there is a deficit in the working of the concern, it must pay for the deficit also. That might not be so very wrong if it was for the general benefit of the community. But the ridiculous thing is that they have no power to do any of these things. The county council is strictly circumscribed in regard to its rating, and in regard to its expenditure. It has no power to spend any money whatever except what it is empowered to spend by Statute, and there is no Statute empowering it either to repay this loan or to pay interest upon the loan or to pay a deficit out of the county fund or to pay anything in the shape of the maintenance of a motor service. In the same way a rural district council, which is also a local authority within the mean- ing of the Act, if the members ask for a loan, and if it gets a loan, has no power whatever to pay any interest upon the loan, or to pay a single penny towards the cost of the maintenance of a motor service.

Further, to some extent the Commissioners may shelter themselves behind the defects of the Act, but it is a curious thing that the Commissioners do not avail themselves of that excuse. They simply say we will not give money except on conditions the fulfilment of which is absolutely impossible. They do not shelter themselves behind the defects of the Act. What I want to say to the right hon. Gentleman is— and I am sure he will convey it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—that I think there ought to be some action taken: that the Chancellor especially is bound to take some action to carry out his own policy expressed in September, 1909. The Development Commission have powers of recommendation. Certain rules are made for them by the Treasury. In my opinion they are the subordinates of the Treasury, and are controlled by the Treasury. Therefore the Government cannot get out of this responsibility by merely saying that this is an independent body, with merely powers of recommendation. I believe the Speaker so ruled: that the Government are the real masters of this Development Commission.

They have it in their power, if they like, in various ways, to compel the Commission to do what they want. It would, in my opinion, be a very dishonourable breach of a public engagement, made publicly in this House, and made as a recommendation to us to support the Bill if they do not take steps to inform the Commission, and thereby affect the policy of the Commission. To deny, in all cases and in all circumstances, the grant in the first place to these poor and somewhat thinly populated districts would be a violation of the speech and promise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1909. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman also that the Act, if it is intended to work at all, must be amended in the particulars to which I have alluded. These local authorities have no powers so far as I can make out. The right hon. Gentleman can correct me if I am wrong—


I would remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not now concerned with legislation.


I quite admit that I am going somewhat beyond the strict rule, but I thought I might direct the attention of the Government to the fact that they have a duty to discharge in instructing the Commissioners in the proper policy which we have to pursue. So far as the establishment of motor services is concerned, at all events in Ireland, and I believe in Great Britain also, the thing is at an end, or will be at an end, unless the Government take some action to reverse the policy announced by the Development Commissioners. The matter has not been debated in the House before, but I urge the Government, even at the close of the Session—I think it my duty so to do—to look into this matter. I could quote the Chancellor himself, who put this matter in the very forefront of his speech on the Bill.


Before the reply of the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General, I should like to bring forward one small matter that, either he or the Assistant Postmaster-General may be able to give an answer to. I desire to refer to the somewhat anomalous position at present occupied by the staff in the solicitor's office of the General Post Office. I understand that the solicitor is on the establishment of the Post Office and receives a salary for his services. The Treasury pay the solicitor a certain sum, out of which he has to pay the salaries of all the staff, none of whom at the present are on the Post Office establishment. The members of the staff of the solicitor's office complain, not unnaturally, at the position in which they are placed. I believe they have requested the Postmaster-General to receive a deputation in order that they might place before him their position and their grievances. The position of the staff in the solicitor's office is likely to become more anomalous than at present, provided that the transfer takes place from the National Telephone Company to the Post Office.

I am given to understand that the solicitor and the solicitor's staff of the National Telephone Company, when transferred to the Postmaster-General's office would then be placed upon the general establishment of the Post Office. Now there are many members of the solicitor's office who have served the Post Office for periods of eight, ten, and twenty years, and it certainly would be extremely unfair if the staff of this new company were placed in a privileged position with prospects of pensions and higher salaries than those who have served so long a time in the Post Office itself. I should very much like to ascertain from the Secretary to the Treasury or from the Assistant Postmaster-General, whether in future the staff of the Telephone solicitor's office will be placed upon the establishment of the Post Office, so as to rank as Civil servants and to receive salaries paid from the Treasury and pensions to which other Civil servants are entitled, and also whether the staff of the Telephone Company will be placed in a superior position to that of the staff at present engaged in the solicitor's office, and to their prejudice. This important question affects the position of a pretty large number of men who have been acting as public servants for a number of years, and I shall be very glad indeed to receive a satisfactory answer as to the positions they will occupy in future after this transfer takes place.