HC Deb 07 May 1924 vol 173 cc507-13

Order for Third Heading read.

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


I do not propose to detain the House at any length by moving the rejection of this Bill at this stage, but wish to afford the Colonial Secretary an opportunity of dealing with a point which was not sufficiently cleared up during the discussions on the earlier stages of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to provide what was termed an all-British cable route from this country to the West Indies, and £400,000 was stated to have been left aside in order to achieve that purpose. I understand the original proposal was made as far back as October last, and my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary is not responsible for the proposal, although he is responsible for the various stages of this Bill and for what is now being achieved. The hon. Member for Acton (Sir H. Brittain) and I, in the earlier Debates, drew attention to a circumstance which we have now finally proved right up to the hilt, and it is that, whatever may be said by the parties concerned, the money which the British Government has left aside for this purpose is being lent to companies which are entirely—I use the word quite advisedly — entirely controlled by American capital and by directors of companies who hold their positions in the employment of those American companies. The hon. Member for Acton gave the names of these people during the Committee stage, and I personally gave the Colonial Secretary a good deal of further information in support of the point which we were making.

I do not think there is any doubt at all that the money which was provided for so-called British companies is, in fact, being provided for the Commercial Cable Company of the United States of America who direct and control these cables and who will direct and control them. It is part of the policy of that great American cable company to get control of these cables. That is quite natural, because there is a strong geographical reason why they should do so, and they have, from time to time, either bought up or got rid of their competitors until they are now in direct control. I do not wish to repeat the arguments which have been used already, but, before we part with the Bill, I desire to have a statement from the Colonial Secretary as to whether our contention is right that, in spite of the fact that the directors may have British names, they are in the employment of these American companies, and that the money originally dedicated by the last Government for this purpose, which is now being officially provided by this Bill by the present Government, is being handed over to our competitors on the other side of the Atlantic. If so, I do not believe it is right. My objection to the Bill, as a matter of fact, does not rest chiefly upon that point. I do not believe in the future of the cable as against the future of wireless. I think it obvious that the cable has no future as against the remarkable increase and progress which has been made in wireless. I think we are throwing money away in extending cable systems when we have the wireless at our disposal. That, however, is by the way, and I raise the particular point which I have mentioned, in order that the Colonial Secretary may have an opportunity of making the position clear.

6.0 P.M.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. J. H. Thomas)

If this Bill were being introduced for the first time, and no money whatever had been spent, I believe that I would find myself in a somewhat different position from that in which I am, for this reason, that whatever may have been the experience in regard to cables, it must, I think, be admitted that all experience tends to show that the remarkable possibilities in the development of wireless are such that very careful consideration should be given before a large expenditure was made in any other direction. But it is only fair to say to the House that that is not a question that the late Government had to consider in this connection, because they were faced with the possibility of no communication with these islands unless some immediate action was taken, and this Bill was ready for introduction last year, and it was only the General Election that prevented the Bill being introduced. Therefore, the present Government were compelled to assume the responsibility and to go on, and, indeed, did go on, and rightly so, or the whole thing would have been in chaos. That is the first point. The second is, that the statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Sir H. Brittain) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) is absolutely true. While it can be argued, and while I am in a position to say, as a matter of fact, that arrangements are being made for the transfer of sufficient shares to make the controlling interest in the hands of British subjects, the fact also remains that they are nominally the servants of the American company.


Therefore, it is also true that the shares transferred to that nominal Chairman would be re-transferred from his name, if he left that post, to the next servant of the United States Cable Company?


I daresay that would be so, but while admitting that, and while it is equally true, I suppose, that American interests are anxious to get this control, it is only fair to observe that these cables might have been British Government property, because I am informed that they were offered to the late Mr. Joseph Chamberlain before the Americans bought them, and that they were refused. Whether or not that was a wise decision then I cannot argue, but it is the fact. What it is important to keep in mind is this, that the advantage of this Bill is that it enables us in future to send our cables and our messages without crossing foreign territory in any part whatever. In other words, the difference is, that hitherto we crossed foreign territory two and three, and in some cases five times, and that is obviated by the present scheme. Therefore, these advantages, it will be seen, outweigh the drawbacks. [An HON. MEMBER: "No!"] At this stage they do, for this reason: What earthly purpose could be served by rejecting this Bill? You have to face facts. Supposing this House rejected the Bill; all that they would have done would have been to have wasted public money, and no matter what our views may be, no one, in any part of the House, would subscribe to any policy of that kind. Having put the situation quite frankly, and having also explained the circumstances and the necessities of the late Government to go on then, and, above all, in view of the fact that the money has been spent, I hope the House will now give us the Third Reading of the Bill.


I thank the Colonial Secretary for his statement, and I know that he is just as anxious as I am to see an All-British cable established, but, at the same time, I must say I wholeheartedly endorse every word which the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) has said on this subject. The point which I think urged one to discover information was as to the reason why the House was not told of all these things when the Bill was introduced. If I may say so, we have had to drag it out at each specific stage. The hon. Member for East Edinburgh and I have spoken on each occasion on which this matter has been brought forward, and each time we have found out a little more, and I cannot help thinking that the Colonial Secretary has not been treated fairly in this matter by his advisers. I am convinced that he gave us all the information that he had, and that information was not quite as satisfactory as it might have been in view of what he has just said to the House. On 8th April I put specific questions to him from the point of view of British control. It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to press their influence wherever they can all over the world, but we, in our turn, and particularly when we are dealing with British possessions overseas, are, I think, even more entitled to see to it that over an All-British Red Route we have British news and British influence first. In that connection, I am sure that those who know the West Indies and who have been there must have heard many times, as I have when I have been there, grievous complaints of the fact that the news which does come in from different parts of the world is seen through American glasses. I have heard it in every one of the islands, as well as in British Guiana. Where does this news come down from? It comes mostly from Halifax, and it is nearly all from the Associated Press, that great association of the newspapers of America, and it is of necessity American-coloured. In a report which was made to the Empire Press Union, which was presented only a few months ago, this matter is referred to two or three times. It states: The subsidised service of the Direct West India Cable Company appears to be the principal source of telegraphed news throughout the British islands. … but it is obviously designed primarily for American readers. That is from one of the islands, and from British Guiana the statement is made: Press bulletins for the West Indies and British Guiana … are compiled from American sources. These messages are, in consequence, almost entirely American coloured, while they give undue predomin- ance to American domestic society, politics, and Congressional happenings, to the exclusion of Imperial and inter-Colonial events. That is the disquieting side of this business, and we are handing over £400,000 to strengthen this splendid American service. I think the House ought to have been told of this information, which we have now elicited, earlier in the proceedings, for, referring to the OFFICIAL REPORT of 8th April, when I put some specific questions to the Colonial Secretary as to any Americans on the Board, or American control in the way of capital, the answer I got from the right hon. Gentleman was as follows: I have made specific inquiries and have got an answer, and the answer is a very clear one … It is untrue to state that the Halifax and Bermudas Cable Company and the Direct West India Cable Company are companies which are controlled by the Commercial Cable Company. With the exception of one American director resident in New York"— and at first I was told there were no American directors— who has never taken any part whatsoever in the management or control of these companies, the directors have always been natural British born subjects who have retained their British nationality. The companies' cables all land in British territory. The companies are managed in every detail by a London board. The staff in its entirety is composed of natural British born subjects."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April, 1924; col. 349, Vol. 172.] That sounds all very specious and illuminating, but they did not add what I think they ought to have added, and that is the fact that every one of the directors is either connected with or, in most cases, a paid employé of, this great American Commercial Cable Company and that the bulk of the capital was held in American hands. I think the Colonial Secretary ought to have been furnished with that information. I think it was only fair that he should have had it, so that he, in his turn, could impart it to the House, and I cannot help feeling that the House has been very badly treated indeed. Had it not been for the efforts of one or two Members, neither the Colonial Secretary himself nor the House, I suggest, would have learned these facts, and they are facts that ought to be known. We all wish to see a cable established which will disseminate as rapidly and as far as possible British news throughout these splendid little patriotic possessions of ours in the Carribean Seas, but if this is to continue, and if this news, as up till now, is to go largely through American sources and hands, the effort which the Colonial Secretary is making, backed up by the House of Commons, to spend this large sum of money to continue this service will, I am afraid, be somewhat fruitless. I appreciate immensely the answer given by the Colonial Secretary. He has been very straightforward in telling us to-day that the information that we had gleaned in various directions is absolutely correct. I will conclude by once more saying that I do not think he himself has been treated fairly by his own advisers.


My mind is uneasy about this matter. Could the right hon. Gentleman, before the Bill comes back from the other Chamber, make an arrangement whereby our British rights in the shares shall be safeguarded from transfer?


I will certainly consider any question that arises. I am informed that not one penny of the £400,000 goes to the Bermuda Company, and, of course, as I explained before, the Pacific Cable Board will manage and control our cables; but a new point is now raised, namely, What guarantee is there that the so-called nominees who constitute the majority of the capital, shall not, without the knowledge of the Government, or otherwise, transfer the shares back? That is a new point, and I will certainly go into it.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.