HC Deb 07 August 1924 vol 176 cc3186-90

Although our ears are still ringing with the devastatingly destructive speech of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon (Mr. Lloyd George), and the reply—brief rather than effective—of the Under-Secretary, I make no apology for turning to more peaceable subjects by opening up one of those humble and prosaic questions left to be dealt with by private Members. I am sorry to intervene, but I have something I wish to call attention to. This time I shall call attention to the management of a particular Department of the Government which is never open to review. I refer to one subsidiary office in the Government—I refer to the Stationery Office. I gave notice to the Secretary to the Treasury of my intention to bring forward this subject, and I understood he would be present to answer any questions. He is responsible primarily, although in a very indirect way, for the management of this Department. I am sorry that, having undertaken to be present, he is absent. But none the less in his absence I will refer to the matter. We never have an opportunity of discussing the estimates for this office. We have found in the Committee of Public Accounts many things which require attention, and we find no opportunity of raising questions on them in the House. We ask questions of an apparently responsible Minister, but we find the responsible Minister knows nothing about it. It will be in the recollection of the House that considerable scandal was caused by certain advertisements of an objectionable kind appearing on National Health Insurance forms. My attention was called to this by medical constituents, who declined to sign certain certificates which contained advertisements of quack medicines and of patent foods. I brought the question before the Minister of Health at that time, but the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. N. Chamberlain) disclaimed any knowledge of the matter, and said it would be reconsidered and all the notices would be withdrawn.

I think the House will agree with me that a matter of this kind ought not to be left solely in the management of a permanent official not responsible to the House. According to our Government the direction of our public offices must be in the hands of politically responsible Ministers, and nothing so delicate as the choice of advertisements to go out under the ægis of this Department broadcast ought to be in the hands of any irresponsible permanent official. I come to another matter. I think a very serious injury is being wrought upon scientific operations by the excessive charges and the restrictions placed upon the publication of these documents. The other day, at the instance of the Geographical Society, I asked a question as to the sale of ordnance maps, which had suddenly become restricted, and I put the question to the nominally responsible Minister, the Minister of Agriculture. He disclaimed any knowledge of it and his only answer was that the matter, having been brought to his attention, would be reconsidered and altered. Is that a proper thing that a permanent official should be able to place a restriction and embargo on a matter of this sort, a very serious undertaking on which enormous expense had been incurred by the Government and of which a great use is made throughout every part of the Kingdom and by the agricultural community, and that when the question is taken up the Minister should say he is quite unaware of it, but that the matter will be now reconsidered? I understand that since I put the question the embargo has been withdrawn.

3.0 P.M.

I want to refer to another side of this matter, and it is here that I would appeal especially to hon. Members who sit opposite, as it is a subject of special importance, that, when you insist upon the maxim as to a presumed knowledge of the law, there should be no restriction placed upon the poorest people being able to get to know what the law is. Is the House aware of the enormous, unconscionable increase in price that has been placed upon the Statutes of recent years? Up, I think, to 1914 these were issued at a fairly limited price. The Public General Acts were issued at a price of 3s. only, enough to make it easy for the poorest to have access to them. In the year 1922 the price was 10s. 6d., that is, more than three times as much. But that is not the worst. The price of the Index to the Statutes increased from the old price of 10s. 6d. to £5, and now stands at about £4. In the year 1921 it was raised to £5, and in the year 1922–23 to about £4. On what grounds is this done? We all know what the cost of printing these Statutes is; it is chiefly the cost of setting. I am glad to see that I have now the ear of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The cost of printing these Statutes is practically only that of the original setting, and the cost of what are called "off-prints," which may be required for an additional demand, is a negligible quantity. I certainly say, without fear of contradiction, that you have no right to charge to the ordinary citizen anything more than a price which will recoup you for this small extra charge that you are being put to. To throw back upon him the necessity of meeting all expenses, which you know quite well have to be met if the Statutes are to be printed—and they must be printed—to throw back upon him the cost of doing this, and to ask a poor man to he under heavy expenditure for this sort of thing, is absolutely unjust. Yet years have passed and no alteration has been made. I have endeavoured to bring this forward, but I have never once had a chance of having it discussed. I will take another case, the annual record of Statutory Rules and Orders that was issued at 10s. down to 1915. It rose in 1920 and 1922 to five guineas and six guineas respectively, and it is now over £2. In fact, the whole of these essential volumes necessary for the ordinary knowledge of the law—the Statutes and the Index to the Statutes, the Statutory Rules, and the Index to the Statutory Rules—which up to comparatively recent years cost only £1 3s. 6d., have now risen to £11 12s. I am quite sure the Financial Secretary to the Treasury cannot, if he considers it, defend any such thing.

Lastly, I come to the question of the price of the OFFICIAL REPORT. That question is one of very grave constitutional importance. Of course, we always have the usual commonplace objection that we only want our speeches to be reported. So far as mine are concerned, I do not care if they are not. They are not worth it, but if the proceedings of this House are not duly recorded arid widely known, the constitutional effect will be very grave. We know quite well that the newspapers of late years have ceased universally to give anything like an adequate account—nothing more really, than a travesty of our proceedings. We have a short and exciting incident, which perhaps, as we know, occupies only a minute or two of time. It is reported at half a column in the best newspapers, while an important debate, involving grave issues, is reported summarily, or perhaps omitted altogether, or else only of a recital of the names of those who took part is given. Is that the way in which this nation is to be kept aware of how its business is being transacted? I will go so far, and I think I shall have the agreement of a good many Members, when I say that the worse our speeches are the more necessary it is that they should be reported, and the more necessary that the nation should know how its business is being carried on. I contend that if proper means were provided, if the OFFICIAL REPORT were distributed as cheaply as possible, it would have a very much wider circulation. Ever since the day when Dr. Johnson reported out of his imagination in the pages of the "Gentleman's Magazine" the proceedings of this House, when, as he said himself, he took care never to let those scoundrelly Whigs ever have the best of it!"— ever since that time, there has been a desire, and an insistence, against the rules of Parliament, to have a report of its proceedings. That was insisted on, and the House had to give way. After that, people took very great interest in the Debates of this Assembly. It is an unsound and an unhealthy thing that that should be checked in any way. The worse these proceedings are, the more need they have to be known and watched. I think the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will agree with me when I say that the expenditure would only be a few hundred pounds a year. With regard to the whole sphere of operations of the Stationery Department, it ought not to be in the charge of a permanent official who is not answerable to any political Minister for his conduct.

What is the use of our spending endlessly upon education, keeping up great museums, instituting long scientific inquiries when the effect of them is being lessened by the fact that this obscure permanent official is able to decide and to put a check upon the spread of the information obtained?

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