HC Deb 19 May 1927 vol 206 cc1515-28

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The sole object of this Bill is to allow the Post Office to acquire certain sites required for telephone exchanges and post offices at a reasonable price. If the Post Office were not a Government Department, this would be a private Bill, but, as it is a Government Department, it has to be taken in Government time. It follows the same procedure as with a private Bill. If the House grants it a Second Reading, the Bill will go to a Select Committee, where the merits of each particular site will be investigated and any opponents of the Bill, if there are any, will have an opportunity of being heard. I, therefore, do not propose to trouble the House with the details of the particular sites which the Postmaster-General is anxious to acquire. The only question really before the House on the Second Reading is the question of principle, which is whether the Postmaster-General is entitled to acquire compulsorily sites which are required in the national interest, at a fair price, if he is able to make out a case before the Select Committee for each particular site. That is a question which has invariably been answered in the past in the affirmative by the Conservative and Liberal parties, and I hope that hon. Members opposite will also be able to give that principle their support.


There will be no opposition, I imagine, on this side to giving a Second Reading to this Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] We, like other hon. Members, are desirous of seeing the Government carry forward the necessary work in this connection, but there are one or two questions which, perhaps, the Noble Lord might answer. No provision is made in the Bill for finance, which, I gather, is due to the fact that the Post Office pays out of revenue, and, therefore, it is not necessary to have any financial Clauses in the Bill. Another point is, what are the purposes for which these sites are desired, and is the land already acquired; or are we being asked to give the Post Office, as it were, a blank cheque to obtain sites in the localities mentioned? I know there are one or two places indicated, such as Free Lane at Leicester and the closing of certain passages in the City of London; but, in regard to Fulham, Blackpool and other places there is no mention of any land being in hand. I may be wrong in this, but if the land is not already in the possession of the Post Office, it looks as though we may be doing something which will drive up the price of the land against the Post Office. My only other point is, what is the meaning of Clause 2? Here is one of the difficulties which arise out of legislation by reference. It would appear that it is proposed to repeal certain Sections which give the Post Office rights withheld from other persons under the Act of 1845. If we can have answers to these questions I think one can say that the Bill will be unanimously and speedily agreed to.


At Question Time the Prime Minister told us that this was an agreed measure, and when there was some question as to that statement he added that it was a Bill which would provide a lot of employment. Evidently the Prime Minister thought that by simply throwing off that expression "The Bill will provide a lot of employment," he would induce hon. Members on this side of the House to say "Is that so, Mr. Prime Minister? Oh, well we will hurry up and let it through." We have had many statements from the Prime Minister, and it is not enough for him to say: "The Bill will provide employment; therefore you need not examine it," I notice that the Bill was ordered to be printed on 24th March, and so I think the plea of fearful hurry as a reason for our not examining the Bill, goes by the board. I have looked into the Bill and there are certain questions I wish to ask the Noble Lord who is in charge of it to-night. Sub-section (2) of Clause I states that a person dealing with the Postmaster-General in respect of any of the said lands or rights in or over them shall not be bound or entitled to inquire whether the consent of the Treasury has been given to that dealing, What is the purpose of that? That may be a small point; but in Sub-section (3) there is a much more important question to which I should like an answer. It states that The power to purchase lands compulsorily under this Act shall cease on the thirty-first day of December nineteen hundred and thirty. I want to know what is the purpose of that Sub-section? It would appear that the Post Office has certain sites in view in connection with the development of Post Office work and it would also appear that by carrying out this work, according to the statement made by the Prime Minister, there would be a certain amount of employment provided. I wonder whether this Sub-section is a proviso which means that the Post Office may or may not become active in regard to the provision of employment. Why is there this suggestion with regard to 31st December, 1930? Are we to take it that these sites may not be acquired at all, and that the Post Office authorities may change their mind with regard to the necessity for these sites, or is there to be a sort of roving commission in connection with this Department?

I wish to raise another point in reference to the sites in question. It would appear that on some of those sites there are various buildings in regard to which I would like a little information. I want to know if any of these buildings consist of houses, and if there are houses on those sites I would like the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell us whether any provision has been made to accommodate the people who may be dispossessed. I understand that there is a certain amount of building to be done, and I take it that it is by means of this building that there is going to be found a certain amount of employment. I would like to know whether the building which may take place is to be done by private enterprise, or will it be carried out by the Department employing direct labour? If it is to be carried out by private enterprise, will that mean that so many employés are going to be taken off the building of houses in order to carry out the new building operations suggested by this Measure? I would like an answer to those points.

I notice with regard to the second Clause that the procedure followed is the same as under the Lands Clauses Act, 1845. I have been wondering whether the Government consider that at this time of day, in connection with a matter of this kind, its purpose can be best achieved by bringing into operation a Statute as old as that of 1845. Would it not have been a much simpler matter for the Postmaster-General to have come to this House for powers that would have enabled him to carry through this work more efficiently than he can do by the procedure provided under the Lands Clauses Act, 1845? It may be that the legislators of those days were a very gifted set of legislators. With regard to legislation under the Lands Clauses Act, I notice that some of those Clauses are not going to be enforced in this connection. I do not want to carry my opposition as far as moving the rejection of the Bill if I can get some satisfaction on the points which I have raised. I should like to know the total amount of money which the Department has estimated is going to be expended in connec- tion with these sites and buildings. It is the business of the House when this Government department is embarking on this matter, to get this information. I know it has been suggested that the Bill will go to a Select Committee and that anybody who is interested can go there and raise any of the points he desires, but I think the Noble Lord, when he made that statement knew sufficient regarding the procedure in connection with Select Committees to know that that undertaking does not amount to very much, and that it is much more suitable in connection with a thing like this, while the Bill is before us on Second Reading, that we should get some answer with regard to the more general points. I do think the Noble Lord in moving the Second Reading might have given the House some idea of the magnitude of the operations contemplated under the Bill. That is a perfectly reasonable request, and if he can give me satisfaction in regard to that, and in regard to the amount of money to be expended and as to whether there is any house property on the property which it is contemplated taking over, and, if so, whether provision will be made for the housing of the people concerned, I shall have no great difficulty in regard to the Measure.

Some Members on the Government side, knowing we had said we were going to give some attention to this Bill, have been anxious to find the grounds for our opposition, and have assured us that this is a Socialist Measure. They expressed surprise at the line we were taking, and said that the Government were carrying out Socialism. All I want to say in regard to that is that it is on all fours with what the Prime Minister said, that this was something which would provide employment and that surely hon. Members would do nothing to impede its progress. The best way for hon. Members to help the progress of the Measure is to get information in regard to it, and we shall then be in a position to see that the Postmaster-General carries out the operations as efficiently, thoroughly and quickly as possible. If he shows any signs of the sort of lethargy of other Members of the Government and heads of departments then we will be able to prod him, if we know something more about the Bill than we have got so far. I hope the Noble Lord will give more information, so that instead of going to a Division in connection with the Bill we shall be interested to see the department carrying through work which will make the Post Office more efficient and more able to carry out its duties and responsibilities as a great Socialist experiment.


The Noble Lord in introducing this Bill made a very significant remark. He said that in view of the late hour he was sure that the House would not expect him to say much. In other words, he meant that the House would not expect him to explain the Bill. We object to that kind of procedure under which Bills are brought on at this time of night, and the Minister rides off with the excuse that, because of the lateness of the hour, that is a reason no explanation should be given to the House.

Viscount WOLMER

The hon. Member misunderstood me. I said I would not go into detailed points, but would only deal with the principle of the Bill.

12. m.


The House will agree that the hon. Gentleman neither went into principles nor details, because he sat down in about ten seconds. As I said last night on another Bill I am almost certain that if Ministers, even at a late hour, would go to the trouble of explaining a Bill to some extent, they would probably do away with some of the speeches made afterwards. In any event the House is entitled to an explanation of such an important Bill as this, and if Ministers want to get Bills through they could find a better time than a quarter to twelve at night. The Prime Minister said, I think to-day, that he was bringing on this Bill to-night, because it was an agreed Measure. It may be such, but that is no reason, why Members should not have all the information about it which it is possible to give. He also said that it was destined to give employment and that that was a reason with which we should agree. We shall probably agree with it for that reason, but again that is not a reason why we should not know what it is all about. For Ministers to try to ride off on an excuse like this is not treating the House with the courtesy that it deserves. There are one or two questions which I want to ask the Noble Lord. There is Sub-section (2) of Clause 1. Paragraph (1) reads: A person dealing with the Postmaster-General in respect of any of the said lands or rights in or over them shall not be bound or entitled to inquire whether the consent of the Treasury has been given to that dealing. That appears to me to be a very curious paragraph. Frankly, I do not understand why it is in the Bill. There may be good and sufficient reason for it, and, if so, I hope the Under-Secretary will give it to the House. Then there is the next paragraph, which says: The power to purchase lands compulsorily under this Act shall cease on 31st December, 1930. Why has the particular date, 1930, been put in? Another question I would like to ask is: Does this mean that the power to purchase lands under this Act is limited to the three specific cases which are mentioned, or does it mean that power will be given to purchase land for every Post Office which may be built up to 1930? Clause 3, which relates to compensation in case of recently altered buildings, reads as follows: In determining any question of disputed compensation under this Act no allowance shall be made on account of any improvement or alteration effected, or any interest created, after the twentieth day of November, nineteen hundred and twenty-six, which, in the opinion of the official arbitrator, was not reasonably necessary or was effected or created with a view to obtaining or increasing compensation. Does that mean that these people have already been told that these buildings or lands are going to be acquired, and have they been warned that they must do nothing to them? Supposing that between the giving of this notice last year and the acquisition of the land or building, it is necessary, in the opinion of the proprietor that extra money should be spent or alterations made, does this Clause rule out everything of that description, or is it the arbitrator who will have sole power to decide?

Again, Clause 5 reads as follows: It shall be lawful for the Postmaster-General on, in, under or over any of the said lands acquired by, or vested in, him to pull down and remove any existing buildings or other works and to construct such other buildings and works, make such approaches and alterations of thoroughfares and do all such other things as in his opinion are necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Post Office. It seems to me that the Postmaster-General is taking powers to construct or remove buildings and works and so on, if he thinks fit, without the consent of the local authorities. I know that the local authorities are mentioned overleaf, but it appears to me that in this case the Postmaster-General has power to do as he thinks fit. Does the Bill give him that power, whether the local authority agrees or not?

Clause 6 says that the Postmaster-General may enter into agreements with local authorities, but supposing that an agreement is not reached, who is the arbitrator, and who has the final say in the matter? There is the question of the diversion or alteration of streets or highways, which with some authorities might be a very important point, and there might be difference of opinion between the Postmaster-General and the local authority. Supposing that they do not reach agreement, who is the deciding authority? Is it the Postmaster-General, or the local authority, or is some arbitrator called in?

Clause 8 also appears to be very important. Will the power given under that Clause to stop up passage-ways be vested in the Postmaster-General, once the Bill becomes an Act? Are they merely existing passage-ways of no use to anyone except the people who own the building, or are they public thoroughfares which, when the Postmaster-General acquires the site, will be cut off from the, public? The question of right of way is a very acute one, and one that is very jealously guarded by the people of this country. Finally, Clause 11 says: Nothing in the Disused Burial Grounds Act, 1884, as amended by the Open Spaces Act, 1887, or in any other Act shall prevent the erection of buildings on any land in Free Lane in the county borough of Leicester vested in the Postmaster-General. Here, again, it appears to me that there might be a clash of opinion between the people concerned and the Postmaster-General, and that some trouble or protest is foreseen as to what is proposed. Foreseeing that, he is seeking dictatorial powers to do what he thinks fit to do, in spite of protest. I should like to get an assurance that no dictatorial powers are to be used by the Postmaster-General.


It would appear from Clause 2 that the proposed powers are drastic; powers are given to make entry after 14 days' notice. Sup- posing an allotment is concerned, 14 days' is a very short notice. If it is not that type of land, the question may not be quite so important, but in some cases it may be important indeed.

Viscount WOLMER

In reply to the questions which were put to me by the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon), I ought to explain that this Bill follows the common form of previous Post Office Bills. It is provided that we have to deposit plans setting forth exactly the sites that we propose to take, and the whole Bill is limited to the sites delineated in those plans. The plans have been deposited in the Public Bills Office and communicated to all interested parties, so far as we are aware of them, and publicly advertised. This Bill only gives us power to take the sites shown in the plans, and that explains the point which was raised by the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Paling). It is intended to prevent anyone, whose property it is proposed to acquire, from adding unreasonably to its value. The arbitrator is given power to allow any expenditure such as the hon. Member mentioned, which an owner had reasonable cause to make in order to keep the building in a proper state of repair, or for any other sufficient reason. That, again, is the common form, and it comes into every railway Bill and every Bill of this nature. The Land Clauses Acts provide machinery by which the compulsory acquisition of property takes place. That machinery is applicable to the Post Office on practically every point, but there are one or two, points on which it is not applicable. In Clause 2 (a) it is stated that Section 133 of the Land Clauses (Consolidation) Act shall not be incorporated in this Act. That deals with land taxation, and, as the Crown does not pay land taxes, it is not applicable.

The hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen), wanted to know why, under Clause 1, a person dealing with the Postmaster-General shall not be entitled to inquire whether the consent of the Treasury had been given. Of course, that is also a matter of common form, simply put in to safeguard the persons with whom we have to deal. Under Sub-section (1) of Clause 1, the Postmaster-General may not incur any expense in this regard without the consent of the Treasury. In an ordinary transaction in which I, for instance, am in a fiduciary position, and am not allowed to incur expense without the consent of another party, a person who does business with me would have to inquire whether I had that consent before he concluded the deal; but we exempt anyone from whom we are buying this property from the obligation to inquire whether the Treasury has consented. Every one knows that the Postmaster-General is not going to enter into this matter without having previously consulted the Treasury, and this is a mere matter of form. Subsection (3) merely sets a limit to the time within which the Postmaster-General may acquire the properties described in the deposited plans. Something might happen, for instance, in the next two or three months that might make the Postmaster-General unwilling to go on. We do not anticipate any such contingency, but are merely copying the usual form. It would be intolerable that the Postmaster-General should have a perpetual power to seize a particular field or street till the end of time, whenever he wanted to do so, so that the value of buildings or businesses might be completely destroyed.

Then the hon. Member asked if any houses would be destroyed by these schemes. I think there will be one or two houses—very few—that will have to be pulled down; in nearly all these schemes that is necessary, but I can assure the hon. Member that the Post Office in these matters is always in close co-operation with the local authority, and both the Postmaster-General and the local authorities in the past have done, and I can assure the hon. Member that in these eases also they will do, everything they can within reasonable limits to secure that no undue hardship is inflicted upon the tenants of those houses. The Postmaster-General has had to pull down quite a number of small houses in the past, but care has always been taken to do it in such a way that every consideration has been shown to the tenants who were evicted, and opportunities have been given them to acquire, generally, council houses, or other houses in the near neighbourhood.

The hon. Member also asked whether direct labour was to be employed, or whether the work was to be done by private enterprise. The answer is that there will be both. There will be a good deal of Post Office or Office of Works work in some cases, but also—for instance, in the erection of plant for the automatic telephone exchange—there will be work done by contractors. The hon. Member also asked what the cost was going to be. I am sure he will appreciate that it would be very undesirable to state the price the Postmaster-General is prepared to offer for the properties in question, because that might have the effect of sending up the price.


I can quite understand that, but might we have some details as to the cost of the buildings?

Viscount WOLMER

I was going to give the details. The cost of building a telephone exchange varies between £25,000 and £75,000, according to size. The cost of the telephone exchanges mentioned here would be something between those two limits. Of course, the cost of the plant inside the buildings is six or eight times that amount, and, therefore, a very considerable sum of money is involved. I think the only other point raised by hon. Members is the point that was asked in regard to Clauses 5 and 6 about the thoroughfares. Both Clauses are common forms, and have appeared in all Post Office Sites Bills since the beginning of time, and that is why they are hen now. In these particular cases, the Post Office is in complete agreement with all the local authorities concerned, and we do not expect that it will be necessary to bring these powers into force. The hon. Member for Doncaster asked me a question in regard to Clause 8, which deals with the stopping up of passageways. These are little passages in a very dilapidated area in Houndsditch, where we propose to erect a telephone exchange, and the City Corporation has given its agreement to these passages being stopped up. The building of this exchange will make a real improvement in the district. In regard to Clause 11 about the burial grounds, again we are in complete agreement with the local authority and the people of Leicester on this matter. I know I have the support of the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) on this subject. These burial grounds were closed in 1856, and the remaining bodies were removed in 1923. This is the only direction in which the telephone exchange can be extended. There is no local opposition to it. The people are agreed that it is the best use to which the site can be put, but there is a Statutory provision which applies to burial grounds, and, therefore, it is necessary to have this Clause in the Bill. I hope I have not troubled the House too much with details. Every one of these proposals has to be substantiated before the Select Committee, and I hope that after these few remarks the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill.


What about the fourteen days' notice?


I am obliged to the Noble Lord for his explanation. I see that in the Schedule there are three of these passages which are to be stopped up. Am I to understand that, notwithstanding the agreement with the City Corporation, no hardship will be imposed upon the people who may have been in the habit of using these passages?

Viscount WOLMER

No harship whatever. It is all within a very small area. The three passages are quite close to each other. I understand that there is no opposition to that at all. In regard to the question of the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown), I am afraid it has escaped me for the moment.


Clause 2, paragraph (d).

Viscount WOLMER

That, again, is the common form. I would like to point out that the Postmaster-General served notice in November last and these people will have had practically eight or nine months' notice. This, really, only relates to the last stage, when we tell them we are coming in, a fortnight hence.


As my constituency is either the principal place, or, at any rate, one of the principal places in which this Post Office (Sites) Bill is to take effect, I think I ought not to let its Second Reading go through without one or two words with regard to it. Generally speaking, I view with grave apprehension the taking of any disused burial ground, because, although it may be true that it has been closed as a burial ground for some time, and although it may be true that all human remains have been removed, my view is, that it should, in general, be to the local feeling on the matter, and left as an open space, and it is wrong to close it for private or public purposes and build upon it. But with regard to this particular site in Leicester, I have been at some pains to inquire as as to the local feeling on the matter, and I find that it is a small place, in a very out-of-the-way part of the City, and that there is no desire whatever in favour of retaining it as an open space. In these circumstances, and in view of the importance of the extension to the post office building, which it is proposed to erect on the site, I can only say, that so far as my constituents are concerned, they have no objection to the Bill, and I shall not oppose Second Reading.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee of Seven Members, Four to be nominated by the House and Three by the Committee of Selection.

Ordered, That all Petitions against the Bill, presented Three clear days before the meeting of the Committee, be referred to the Committee; that the Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, or agents, be heard against the Bill, and Counsel heard in support of the Bill.

Ordered, That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records.

Ordered, That Three be the quorum of the Committee.—[Viscount Wolmer.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

[It being after half-past Eleven of the Clock upon Thursday evening, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes after Twelve o'Clock.