§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 10 to 16.
This refers to the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1904. The last thing I desire is to omit this Act from the Schedule, but Parliamentary form makes it necessary that I should move its omission in order to raise questions about it. Upon this Act hang the whole powers of the Postmaster-General for the regulation of traffic in the ether. On the continuance of this Act depends the whole system of wireless telegraphy, the whole of broadcasting, 2508 and all the other developments of wireless traffic. If this Act were repealed, the result would be chaos. This is one of the two Parliamentary opportunities in the year for a short review of matters connected with wireless in general, and I propose, therefore, to give the Postmaster-General one of those all too rare opportunities of giving the Committee a little information on the subject. I can most usefully do so if I ask him one or two questions about matters of general interest.
I would like him to tell us the position with regard to beam telephony with the Dominions, and the progress of the services, and the development of this form of communication. I should like him to tell us the state of development of Trans-Atlantic wireless. I understand that there has recently been opened yet another low-wave channel, and perhaps he will tell us within broad limits how the traffics are going generally, whether they are up to expectations and whether he is satisfied with the development of the service. The Committee will also be interested if he can tell us about the progress in the development of television and the experimental transmissions which have been made by the British Broadcasting Corporation. I remember well the first experiment, and when, not without some doubts, it was decided to allow the British Broadcasting Corporation to start experiments of this character. The Committee would be interested, and I am sure that the nation would be interested, to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say in regard to development in this direction. I am not going at the present moment. into the question of grand opera, for I am afraid that it. would not be in order upon this Amendment.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I bow to your Ruling at once. It would pass the wit of Parliamentary ingenuity to avoid making some side references to it, but of course, should this proposal mature in the form of a Supplementary Estimate—though I have some doubts that it will mature—we shall have a direct discussion on it, and I hope a direct expression of opinion by the Committee of 2509 Supply. There are some questions with regard to the international work of the British Broadcasting Corporation which I should like to put.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be raising questions with which this Act is not concerned. This is an Act to deal with licences for wireless telegraphy.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
That is quite true. I ought to make it plain that the British Broadcasting Corporation can only operate under licence from the Postmaster-General, which is granted by him under the powers conferred upon him by this Act. Should the House refuse to re-enact this Act the licence of the Postmaster-General to the British Broadcasting Corporation would lapse, the whole of our control over 'aerial traffic would collapse, and there would be a state of chaos in the ether. Anybody would be at liberty to broadcast anything at any time. A number of complaints, more particularly from the East and South-East of England, have been brought to my notice lately with reference to interference caused by certain international stations not keeping to their assigned international wave-lengths. It is perhaps invidious to name offenders, but I am told that Stuttgart has been notorious and that the powerful new German station which has just been opened is possibly causing such disturbance in the South-East of England that people there arc unable to get the transmissions from 2 LO. There is an international body which deals with these affairs 'and an international congress which decides wave-lengths, and we should like to know that the right hon. Gentleman is taking all the appropriate steps with these international authorities to secure that these stations shall keep to their assigned wave-lengths and so reduce as far as possible the inconvenience which has been caused.
I would like to think that the right hon. Gentleman had some powers to deal with the broadcasts from Moscow. I confess that I am not very sure whether he has any powers, either national or international. I must say there seems to have been a. certain lack of liaison between the Foreign Office and the Post Office on the occasion of the Last broadcast from Moscow. The Foreign Secretary said that 2510 the transcript of the last Moscow broadcast was not brought to his notice until one o'clock in the afternoon, whereas transmission had taken place at 10 o'clock the previous evening. We are threatened with another emanation from the same quarter on the 9th December, and I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should make arrangements on that occasion for very close liaison with the Foreign Office, and ensure that at the very earliest moment a verbatim report of what has been said from that quarter will be available. I do not want to ask too many questions, but I have one other to put, and that is as to how the programme of construction of regional stations is getting on, whether all the locations have been precisely determined and when it is expected that they will be opened.
§ Commander SOUTHBY rose—
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr.Lees-Smith)
If the hon. and gallant Member will permit me, I think it would he best if I were to answer first, while the questions are fresh in my mind, the points put to me by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir. W. Mitchell-Thomson), and later I will be glad to deal with any others that he himself may raise. I will take the right hon. Gentleman's questions in their inverse order, and though I may not be able to give him all the information that he requires I will give him all that is in my possession at the moment. He asks what is our position with regard to the wireless messages broadcast from Moscow and whether we have any powers of interference. When the Washington International Radio Conference was held some years ago Russia was not invited to attend it—not, I think, because of the action of the British Post Office— and as a result Russia maintained that she was not bound by any international regulations regarding wave-lengths and could select those which were most convenient to herself. She selected, therefore, certain wave-lengths which were highly inconvenient to other nations. At the last broadcast conference, which was held during the term of office of my right hon. Friend opposite, Russia was invited to attend, and when there Russia insisted that white she would come into 2511 a general international arrangement, certain wave-lengths which she would not have been allowed by the ordinary process but which she had been accustomed to operate during her period of freedom should still be permitted. I cannot say that her proposal was exactly accepted, but it was not rejected; and the result is that she is now to some extent working within the general system of regulations regarding wave-lengths but has, in addition, certain wave-lengths which she has been accustomed to operate before the conference, and it is on one of these wave-lengths that she is transmitting messages to this country.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
Yes, that is right. That is quite outside the ordinary English wave-length, which is on the band from 200 to 500, but it is, I think, rather near the actual wave-length of Daventry. On certain nights, for weeks past, she has been regularly transmitting messages to this country. As the right hon. Gentleman has made one or two suggestions as to liaison between the Foreign Office and the Post Office, I may say that it is now a good many months since I began to take some interest in these messages from Russia and instructed the officials of the Post Office to go to our station at St. Albans—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I cannot quite see how these observations can arise on a Bill dealing with licensing regulations.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
I think I can explain that what I am saying is in order. As a matter of fact, it continues discussions which occupied us last year. Under our licence we have to deal with wave lengths. There are certain international regulations regarding wave lengths and it is a. question whether Moscow is or is not acting within those regulations.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
I am dealing with the fact that those messages came by wave-lengths which did not come under the international regulations, and I am explaining what steps I have taken to ascertain how far the Russian station 2512 was within the regulations and was interfering with our wave-lengths. I asked my officials some months ago to investigate the matter, and they did so for some time, but the messages were exceedingly uninteresting, and for that reason exceedingly innocuous. Their character has now changed and the process will begin again. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir W. Mitchell-Thompson) asked a question with regard to the interference of several stations in Germany. He mentioned the Stuttgart broadcasting station, and asked whether they were observing international regulations. The position in regard to Stuttgart is that they are observing international regulations but their wavelengths happen to be very close to the London wave-length. They did not cause any difficulty until quite lately when the power of the Stuttgart station was increased, with the result that interference has occurred very frequently. In regard to the difficulty with the German broadcasting stations, we are endeavouring to persuade them to accept another wavelength, but this can only be carried through by further negotiations, and that is what we are doing at present.
As to the position of television, when I first took up office I found that the situation had matured for certain action on my part. Certain arrangements between the Baird Company and the British Broadcasting Company were in progress, with the result that the Baird Company were given the right of sending television pictures and voice production for half-an-hour six times a week outside the broadcasting hours, and from twelve to half-past at night on three days a week. They used two wave-lengths, one for speech and one for vision, arid the experiment at present is proceeding along those lines. As far as I know, both parties are satisfied with the experiment, and no complaints have been made to me.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon has asked me to make a general statement on the position of trans-Atlantic telephony. One cannot deal with these subjects without referring to what is happening at the broadcasting station at Rugby. Very few people are aware that we possess at Rugby the largest and most powerful wireless station in the world. The trans-Atlantic service is established between 2513 London and New York, and it is now open for 21 hours a day. It works on four wave-lengths, one long wave and three short wave-lengths. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon has already mentioned, one more of these short wave-lengths has been introduced, and we anticipate that another long wave-length will be introduced in about two years. The service at the present time carries between 300 and 600 messages in a week, and it is undoubtedly the greatest commercial service in the world. The Rugby station also possesses a great telegraphic broadcasting service, but this is largely used for strategic purposes. As the Committee is aware, in time of war it is necessary to be able to communicate with our shipping all over the world, and our broadcasting station is able to get in touch with every ship anywhere on the seas.
I have also been asked a question about the development of our telephonic service to the Dominions. I have already explained that I am dealing with telephone services and not with telegraphic services. The first Dominion service to Australia was opened some months ago by a conversation between the British Prime Minister and Mr. Scullin, the Prime Minister of Australia. I should like to mention that during the recent Imperial Conference this service was of great value to Mr. Scullin because it enabled him to keep in touch with the Australian Cabinet, and before he lets for Australia he sent a letter to the Post Office expressing his very great gratitude for the help and the usefulness of the telephone service to Australia. In the case of New Zealand—
§ The CHAIRMAN
think the Post-master-General will understand that this discussion places me in some difficulty. I can find nothing in this Act about New Zealand.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
I may perhaps explain that this discussion is covering ground which has been covered in the debates on the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill for several years past—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I find that the Sections of this Act relate to licenoes—for instance, licences for wireless telephones, 2514 licences for experimental purposes, and so on—but it seems to me that we are now having a Post Office discussion on this Bill.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
May I say that I have here a quotation from the Act in question, which says:A person shall not establish any wireless telegraphy station or instal or work any apparatus for wireless telegraphy in any place on board a British ship except under and in accordance with a licence granting that power from the Postmaster-General,Surely, therefore, the working of wireless communication between this country and, for example, New Zealand, would be the direct concern of the Postmaster-General, and would come under the Act of]904.
§ The CHAIRMAN
That subject, surely, is one for the Post Office Estimates on the appropriate occasion. This Act deals entirely with licensing.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
May I say, in order to make the matter clear to you and to the Committee, that, if it were not for this Act, it would be impossible to have any wireless service anywhere in the world, and it is only because there is inherent in the Postmaster-General, through this Act, the power of licensing, and so of regulating, wireless traffic, that it is possible to work any wireless service anywhere. For that reason, it has always been held, and indeed it was specifically said at one time—I remember saying it myself—that it was intended that the Act should be renewed from year to year in order to provide the House of Commons with this opportunity for discussion; otherwise, it would have been made a permanent Act. This is one of the opportunities which have been designedly left to the House of Commons in order that these matters may be reviewed.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am afraid that if I were to extend that principle to all of these Acts the discussion would have a very wide scope. Moreover, this particular Act deals simply with the granting of licences. I quite agree that if:t were not to remain in operation the Post. master-General would not have certain powers, but the powers of the PosmasterGeneral are discussed on the Post Office Vote.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
May I point out, with all respect, that if anyone attempted to discuss matters such as this on the Post Office Vote he would at once be ruled out of order by the Chain, because it would be said that he was dealing with legislation? This, therefore, is the only occasion upon which we can deal with the exercise of the Postmaster-General's powers under legislation.
§ Mr. HARDIE
May I ask if there is any licence existing between say, New Zealand and this country, or between Australia and New Zealand?
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
All that I propose to do is to give a short explanation of the wireless services between this country and the Dominions. That will, I think, cover the ground which the right hon Gentleman opened up. As to the position of New Zealand, we were not able to open a service with New Zealand at the same time that we opened the service to Australia, because New Zealand had not a station which could work to us. New Zealand, however, has lately built a station, and only a few days ago was able to work to Australia. It has not yet a station in our direction, and cannot work to us direct, but, now that there is a station in New Zealand, we are making arrangements by which we shall be able to communicate with New Zealand by switching through from Australia, and L hope that in a few weeks a service to New Zealand will be open.
Canada has been discussing a service for some months. The Post Office felt it to be its duty to point out to Canada that the existing service via New York provided her with the best and most reliable service in the world, but we expressed our willingness, if Canada wished for a direct service, to open one for her. She has expressed that wish, and a direct service between this country and Canada will be opened within the next two or three months.
In the case of South Africa no service is at present in immediate sight. That is not because the Post Office here is not ready, but because the South African station is not yet equipped. As the right 2516 hon. Gentleman knows, South Africa has had a station under a private company in Capetown, but the South African Government have now decided to equip a station of their own in Johannesburg. That station is not yet built, and of course, until it is built, no service can be established.
In the case of India, again, the British Post Office is ready, but many arrangements have yet to be made in India. The Indian Government is endeavouring to make arrangements for a service in India through the Indian broadcasting authorities, but those arrangements are still very far from being carried through, and until they have been carried through the service with India will have to wait. Broadly, I think I am entitled to say that in the development of overseas wireless services this country is very fully maintaining its position in the world.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I should be glad if the Postmaster-General could explain to me how all these matters can be included in this discussion.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
The reason is that in operating between the Post Office of this country and other countries we in this country have control. If it were a question of operating in the other direction, we should not have control, and therefore no question would arise on this occasion. As, however, the operation is between the Post Office of this country and other countries there are certain questions, which I have not specifically mentioned, but which do affect the matter. There is the question whether these services should be operated by the Post Office itself or by licence to other companies, and that is why the question now arises.
§ The CHAIRMAN
Could the Post Office grant a licence to Australia, or does it grant a licence to itself
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am now dealing with a point of Order, and the hon. Member cannot raise a second point of Order until this one has been dealt with. What I want to find out is where the question of a licence comes in in this matter.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am trying to find out whether this discussion is in order, and therefore I directed a question to the Postmaster-General so that I might know. When this is settled, your point of Order will be in order.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
The position is this. The Post Office is dealing with these telegraphic and telephonic services, and the Post Office acts either itself or by licence. It would be quite open for the right hon. Gentleman to ask me questions with regard to the telegraphic service to Canada and the Dominions. Had he done so, I would immediately have been dealing with a service operating by licence. It is impracticable in a discussion to separate the discussion on our telegraphic from that on our telephonic services. They run into one another. As part of them are conducted by licence and part by the Post Office, it would not be possible to have a debate unless the general theme were covered. It happens that the right hon. Gentleman asked me questions only about the Post Office, with which I was dealing. He might have asked me only about the services which were operated by licence.
§ Mr. McGOVERN
In view of the difference of opinion and waste of time, would it not be better to send for Mr. Speaker to have this matter cleared up?
§ Mr. McGOVERN
Seeing you are in doubt, would it not be better to send for Mr. Speaker and have a Ruling on this matter?
§ The CHAIRMAN
Mr. Speaker has nothing to do with questions and explanations arising on the Commitee stage of the Bill. The Chairman is entitled to ask the Ministers' assistance when he is in doubt.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
Surely, if we wish to deal with the question of communication between this country and Canada or New Zealand, it must be in order, because there cannot be any communication except under licence from the Postmaster-General or direct from the Post Office 4 Under the Section of the Act to which I referred, it is surely within the province of the right hon. Gentleman i This is the only opportunity we can get for discussing communications between ourselves and the Dominions, which can take place only by virtue of a licence which the right hon. Gentleman alone can grant.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I want to find out exactly what are the precedents arising on this matter. I do not want to make any precedent, I want to know from the Postmaster-General, before allowing this extended discussion on what I interpret to be the Act, whether there is a. precedent for this wide discussion. The Postmaster-General assures me there has been a precedent: therefore, I let this discussion go on.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
I would like to ask a question. It seems to me that the way we do the business with regard to wireless telegraphy is rather slipshod, because every year we have to re-enact this Act under the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Act, and it is the only Act dealing with that very large subject of wireless communication. Last year the right hon. Gentleman was approached as to whether it would not be possible for him to pass an Act which would be up-to-date and deal with the whole question of wireless telegraphy and not to have every year discussions upon a law, which, if we do not re-enact, lapses, with the result that a state of chaos would ensue. If, for any reason, we do not pass this to-night, there would be complete chaos as far as wireless communications are concerned. I make the point as strongly as possible that one of the primary reasons for wireless is communication between ship and shore.
2519 The Postmaster-General has such drastic powers in this respect that, if he refuses a licence to a ship, that ship would not be allowed to sail by the Board of Trade. If that is so important, surely we should have a permanent Act which would deal with all the questions raised to-night, and under which it would be possible to raise such questions as those of communication between ship and shore and between this country and the Dominions. It was suggested last year that it would be a bad time to introduce such an Act, because of a conference which was about to take place at Madrid. Can the Postmaster-General give us any information about the forthcoming conference? Do we know the date yet I Do we know what is going to be discussed there? Have we made any suggestions as to the agenda?
It is always very difficult to raise matters affecting broadcasting. If a question is put to the Postmaster-General, he does not control broadcasting, and, consequently, cannot reply. In a way, the discussions on the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill are the only opportunity which we have to raise the question of broadcasting. We have raised the matter of Russian broadcasting to-night. What responsibility has the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the reception of any broadcast messages? Suppose, for example, a broadcast message was heard by Rugby station or any station on a proper wave length, which was either subversive propaganda or of a highly indecent character, would it be part of the duties of the Postmaster-General to report that to the Minister concerned? Would it be within the province of his Department to make the report that such propaganda had been heard? Would he have any power in the matter? The only way he could deal with it, of course, would be by jamming. I have seen it stated that the Poles had to build a great station which plays Puccini for 24 hours on end in order to jam the Russian broadcast. Grand opera subsidy is out of order on this occasion, but it might give the right hon. Gentleman the weapon he requires. What are the right hon. Gentleman's powers in regard to this matter of reception? No station can exist in this country for receiving purposes except by this licence. Therefore, if a 2520 station existed for an improper purpose, he could close it down by refusing a licence. What is his position with regard to a Government station which receives improper propaganda over the wireless?
§ Mr. BROCKWAY
On a point of Order. Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman in order in discussing this propaganda? As far as I understand it, these messages are not received by any receiving station in this country, but are received directly by the subscribers. Is he in order in discussing it?
The point is this. No receiving station can be set up in this country except by licence. While it would not be in order to discuss the substance of any message, it is in order to discuss what control the right hon. Gentleman has.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
Exactly, because the fact that a receiving station receives at all, postulates that it has a licence from the right hon. Gentleman. If it came to his notice that a station was set up to be in communication with some subversive broadcasting centre, he could take the necessary steps to see it was closed down. What is the possibility of having an up-to-date Wireless Telegraphy Act introduced This method of discussing every year an Act which if not passed— —
The DEPUTY - CHAIRMAN
We might make it perfectly clear that the Postmaster-General is responsible for receiving stations which relay and broadcast. The Postmaster-General has no power over private receiving sets which are licensed except to refuse the licence.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I do not think we ought to let that Ruling stand without a word of comment. No private receiving station can exist except by virtue of the Postmaster-General's licence given under this Act, and if the Act were not on the Statute Book, the Postmaster-General would have no power to give such a licence.
The Postmaster-General's licences run into some millions. Naturally, he has no control over what they receive, but he would have special control over central relaying and receiving stations.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
It would be "working the apparatus" if it were put 2521 up for the express purpose of getting into communication with some outside centre for an improper purpose. I should like to ask what the hon. Gentleman's responsibilities are with regard to the way that broadcasts from here to the United States are sent. I had a corn-plaint from the United States the other day about the method in which the announcer on this side made his announcement to the, United States public. There was considerable feeling about, the way he announced, the speaker. It takes place every Sunday between 1'2.30 and 12.45. An address is generally given by come public individual here, preceded by an announcement from the United States broadcasting station and an announcement by the British announcer. It seems to me that some control should be maintained. over the way that is done, because in this case, in introducing Mr. Wells, the announcer said that anyone who had not read at least one of his books was fit for a museum. That is a matter of opinion, and it is not the sort of thing that should go out to the United States, a thing which insults a great number of the people in that country who do not like being lectured from this side. If they are being lectured under licence from the hon. Gentleman, it seems to me that he should look into the matter and see that care is taken that, under licence from him, nothing is done that offends the susceptibilities of someone else.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked me what power had to make a report to the Foreign Office about subversive propaganda. There is no duty of that sort laid upon me at all. I explained that some months ago the Post Office listened-in to messages from Moscow and, had they contained any matter of particular interest, it would have been within the discretion of myself as Postmaster-General to deal with it as I thought fit, but it contained matter of no interest at all and the process of listening-in after a time came to an end.
§ Mr. A. M. SAMUEL
Would the Foreign Office know unless the hon. Gentleman reported to it? Has the Foreign Office any contact with these messages from abroad
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
You can only know what these messages from abroad con- 2522 tain by tuning up your set to the wavelength and listening. There is no Foreign Office department specially provided to carry out that function that I know of. It is not a duty laid on the Post Office, but it is a duty that the Post Office undertook some time ago.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
The Postmaster-General has powers to prevent the passage through the mail of indecent literature. If there were a broadcast being received in this country of a grossly indecent nature, it must be someone's duty to stop it, in the same way that it is his duty to stop any indecent publication from abroad coming through the mail. Surely, if some station broadcasts a lecture of an abominably indecent and improper kind, it must be someone's duty to listen and report it. It would be possible for some station to take out a receiving licence and arrange for a station abroad deliberately to broadcast something of this character. Surely it would be within the hon. Gentleman's province to take steps to prevent it.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I gave notice to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that we were going to raise the matter. I hope he will soon be present.
I have no doubt that foreign messages are received by millions of private sets throughout the country. It seems to me if some private receiver did. anything to propagate any foreign message of an improper nature that would he a matter for the Home Office. I cannot see that under this discussion the Postmaster-General has any jurisdiction.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I appreciate that this matter is not without difficulty, but I do not think it is sufficiently appreciated that, but for this Act, the Postmaster-General would not be able to give arty licences at all. If the Act were off the Statute Book, as is being formally proposed to-night for the purposes of discussion, it would be open to anyone in the country to do what he liked. The regulations of broadcasting would cease altogether, and everyone would be able to do as he liked. Directly you concede that, you are met by this position, that the Postmaster-General is giving licences under the Act to individuals, even if they number millions, and I submit that we are able to discuss the conditions. In 2523 fact, they have been discussed, and, while the discussion took place with your predecessor in the Chair we have looked up the debates on previous occasions, and a very large amount of time has been spent, not on this particular matter, which has arisen during this year, but on the general regulations and conditions under which the Postmaster-General exercises his powers. It is simply because under this Act he has those powers that I submit we are able to discuss the conditions under which he uses them.
§ Mr. BROCKWAY
The Postmaster-General has told us he reports to the Foreign Office certain messages. That may be in order, but to discuss further the substance of those messages is clearly out of order.
§ Sir K. WOOD
Will the hon. Member allow me to proceed? We are not in Russia. We have liberty of speech. We are not attempting for a moment to discuss the substance of the broadcast addresses.
This is a very difficult point. It appears too me the only function the Postmaster-General could have is that, if certain forms of broadcasting were received that he thought reprehensible, he could take steps to jam them out. Whether under this Vote we can discuss the responsibility of the Foreign Office or Home Office for these messages, I must rule out.
§ Sir K. WOOD
That has already been permitted, because the Postmaster-General has already described his relationship with the Foreign Office.
§ Mr. HARDIE
With regard to the objection to messages coming into this country from another country, we want to find out whether there is a method whereby the Postmaster-General can control these things. Is it not possible when an objectinoable message comes in in that way to jam it I should like to know whether the Post Office would have power to jam such a message. If not, what protection has a licence-holder of a receiving instrument against what he may deem to be objectionable? If this point 2524 were dealt with, we should be able to get to the bottom of the matter.
The hon. Member has made a substantial point. The question of jamming out, I think, would be a matter for the Postmaster-General, but we cannot have either the Home Office or the Foreign Office introduced into this discussion.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I should like to make a few observations, not upon the question of broadcast addresses, but upon the statement of the Postmaster-General in regard to dealing with objectionable messages of this kind. Before you occupied the Chair, Mr. Dunnico, the Postmaster-General stated that before these particular broadcast messages and addresses were delivered he had 'arranged, many months ago, for officials of his Department to listen in, and he went on to say that the messages were rather wearisome and dull, and that after a time he ceased to require the officials to perform this duty. He stated that he was now seized of the importance of these officials renewing this duty, and he would see to it that in future it was properly performed. He made another observation which seemed to be in direct contradiction to that statement, because he appeared to wish to impress upon the Committee that this matter did not fall within his official duties as Postmaster-General. It has already been stated in the debate that the Foreign Office, who did not seem to be alive to the situation or desirious of dealing with matters of this kind, knew nothing of the broadcast address, regarding which a protest has been made by this country, until one o'clock on the morning following, the address being delivered as the Postmaster-General says at nine o'clock at night. That was the effect of the statement of the Foreign Secretary. We must accept it, but it is very difficult to understand why the Postmaster-General was not able to communicate with the Foreign Office long before that time. I want to obtain an assurance from the Postmaster-General so as to avoid the possibility in the future of the Foreign Office saying that they did not know of an occurrence until hours after it had occurred. I hope that he will take immediate steps to communicate these matters to the Foreign Office.
§ Sir K. WOOD
The hon. Member will have an opportunity, if he desires, to say what he wishes to say. I want the Postmaster-General to make it clear that he will see that there can be no excuse on the part of the Foreign Office in the future that they have not had sufficient time to study a particular address. They are in many cases hours, and in some cases days, behind in making any protest. I am glad that a representative of the Foreign Office is present as he will understand the position. I gather that the Postmaster-General will give prompt attention to this matter in future. I have not the slightest criticism to make in this respect. He has, undoubtedly, had regard to these particular addresses, and he gave up his duties in connection with them only because he did not think that anything of importance was likely to arise. But now he will see to it, particularly on the 9th December, when we are threatened with a repetition of the same sort of thing, that his officials will be on duty, and I believe that the Foreign Office will have no excuse for saying, some hours later, that they have not heard anything about the matter. When we raise these matters in the House I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who is now present, will be fully seized of the position, and that there will be no repetition of an endeavour to procrastinate and avoid dealing with this plain duty.
§ Mr. A. M. SAMUEL
This matter goes somewhat further than anything which is going to happen on the 9th December. The licence holders, who number 3,000,000, allow youngsters all over the country to hear what is transmitted over the wireless. Quite apart from what may happen on the 9th December, we now know that it is possible for undesirable things to come unexpectedly over the wireless and that children may hear them.
§ Mr. HAYCOCK
Will the hon. Gentleman tell me what undesirable things will take place on the 9th December?
§ Mr. SAMUEL
I am not referring to anything which is likely to happen on the 9th, December, but to the general principle of the matter. As my hon. and gallant Friend said, it is possible that from some country where English is spoken we may have transmitted over the wireless some grossly indecent history, or something of an undesirable nature.
§ Mr. SAMUEL
The hon. Gentleman will have au opportunity of making any remarks he wishes to make later on. What machinery have the Post Office in order to protect licence holders under the Act of 1904, not merely in regard to such lectures as may be transmitted over the wireless on the 9th December but in regard to the kind of broadcasts which I have indicated? Is there any permanent official or department in his office whose duty it is to do what he has told us has been done in a haphazard way? He told us that he kept watch some months ago, and that after a time the messages received were so dull that it was not necessary for him to continue listening to what came over the radio. That seems to have been a public-spirited act in which he took steps to watch what was coming over the wireless, but he gave it up. I would press, in regard to the renewal of the Act of 1904, that the Post Office should have a permanent observer of foreign stations to detect what comes over the radio, so that undesirable things could at once be noticed and steps taken to report the occurrence to the proper quarter. In that way, quite apart from political matters, our children at least might be protected from hearing something which we might not wish them to hear over the wireless. I suggest that the Postmaster-General should give an undertaking to establish a look-out in the Post Office to deal with the matter we have been discussing this evening.
§ Mr. BOWEN
If the Postmaster-General is to speak again, I should like him to say whether he would safeguard the interests of the nation and of licence holders by assuring us that warning will be issued to the public at large that terrible things may be expected on the 9th December, and that every wireless 2527 owner should switch off for a long period. One can easily anticipate that the susceptibilities of hon. Members opposite would be very much disturbed at the terrible reckoning that is going to be taken of us on the 9th December. The Postmaster-General, therefore, in dealing with the question of licences—
We are getting a great way from the substance of the debate when we anticipate the nature of possible messages on 9th December.
§ Commander SOUTHBY
I think the Postmaster-General was going to answer some of the queries which I put to him, when various points of Order were raised, and he was prevented from doing so.
§ Mr. LEES-SMITH
The hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. A. M. Samuel) has suggested that I should employ officials listening-in to discover whether by any chance indecent broadcasts are sent here from, I presume, foreign countries. I have never heard that any such broadcasts have been sent and, excepting as a matter of relieving unemployment, I cannot conceive that any Government that was riot wildly extravagant and fantastic would occupy the time of a considerable number of officials for several hours a day listening to and transcribing broadcasts from all the foreign stations in the world. I assume that the hon. Member for Farnham has made his observations because we are not now discussing the matters of urgent importance with which this House has to deal.
The hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Commander Southby) asked me whether it would not be the right time now to transform this Act into a permanent Act. He also asked certain questions as to the next International Radio Conference, which is to be held in Madrid. That Conference will take place in 1932, and the class of question 2528 that will be discussed will be as to whether we might not by international regulation take steps, by fines and penalties, for dealing with certain wireless offences which are injurious to all nations; for instance, the sending of frivolous S.O.S. messages by wireless operators at sea. With regard to the suggestion that the Act should be made permanent. I would paint out that as soon as we attempt to make the Act permanent we shall have to deal with certain issues which are by no means non-controversial. I will not occupy the time of the Committee by explaining what those issues are. My right hon. Friend the late Postmaster-General knows them very well, and he knows that they are by no means non-controversial. The late Government did endeavour to introduce such a Bill as is suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom, but they were compelled to withdraw it before it came to this House. When such a Bill is introduced, it will require a considerable time in this House, and I am afraid that the present Government, any more than the previous Government, are not in a position to undertake the task. I can promise, however, that we will do it probably towards the end of 1932. The International Convention will meet early in 1932, and will probably pass certain resolutions which will require international action and international legislation. It will then be essential to introduce a Bill and, as we do not want two Bills, I can tell my hon. and gallant Friend that in 1932 I shall introduce a Bill to deal with the matter.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I beg to move, in the Schedule, page 4, to leave out lines 8 to 20. The somewhat cryptic reference in the Schedule deals with an Order for the marking of imported meat and eggs. It is a very good Order indeed, and I (ma d e it myself in the year 1920, and I have not a word to say against the Order, as such, but since that time we have acquired a large number of powers in regard to the marking of produce. Is it not possible to substitute the use of 2529 some of those acquired powers for these old powers which are worked iv virtue of the powers possessed once by the Ministry of Food which has been dead 10 years. The Ministry of Food Continuance Act is still kept in being in order that the powers to provide penalties for non-compliance with the order for the marking of imported meat and eggs, may be enforced. That that should be so after such a lapse of time is rather ridiculous.
Is it not time that this matter was taken in hand? The Postmaster-General may reply: "A number of those years were years when your own party were in office." That is true, but as the years go on the position becomes worse, and it is worse now because we have arrived at this point that, so long as this Act. remains in existence for this sole purpose, persons can be prosecuted and subjected to three months imprisonment, with or without hard labour, or to a fine not exceeding£100, or to both penalties, for the infringement of an Order, a copy of which it is almost impossible for anyone in this country to procure.
I have no doubt the Minister of Agriculture has had dug up for him from the cellars of the Ministry of Agriculture, decently dusted and cleaned for him, a copy of the Order, but if you search the Library of the House of Commons from top to bottom and if you search every law library in the country, you will not find a copy of this Order, under which it is still open for a subject of the Crown to be prosecuted. What you will find in the Book of Statutory Rules and Orders is a statement that these temporary rules and orders made by the Minister of Food, and there were thousands of them, owing to their temporary character, have not been reprinted. Therefore, in the Books of Statutory Rules and Orders in the Library or in any law library, there is no copy of this particular Order, and there can be no copy of it.
I take this opportunity of putting this matter to the Government and the Department concerned, with the suggestion that this matter should be dealt with. It is hardly decent that a subject should be liable to be exposed to prosecution of this kind, and I would suggest to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland that he should make representations in the proper quarter to try to bring to an 2530 end this state of things which is beginning to approach the dimensions of a scandal.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. Johnston)
The point which has been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson) is a perfectly correct and sound one, and it has been frequently considered. I can assure him that the Minister of Agriculture will consider the suggestion which has been so forcibly put.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn,
§ Mr. KELLY
I beg to move, in page 4, to leave out lines 25 to 30.
This Amendment deals with what is known as the two-shift system for young people and Weiner,. I want to know why, when employers say that industry is so bad that they cannot find work for the great number of people who desire it, we should still retain this two-shift system under which young people are compelled to start work at six in the morning and work until two in the afternoon and others commence work at two in the afternoon and continue till 10 at night. This is bad for those people, as anyone who knows anything about our big towns will realise. Why is it that this Act of 1921, which was intended to operate for five years in the first instance and to be continued under an Order of the Secretary of State is still continued in operation? I hope the Government are seriously considering the termination of this method of working for women and young people. Have the organisations of the workpeople where it is in operation been consulted before Orders have been made, and have any of those organisations protested against it? Has the Home Office revoked any of the Orders, say, during the last 12 months? I hope that the Government will tell us to-night that the Act and method of operating it are to come to an end. Did the Home Office consult the Joint Industrial Councils on which the workpeople are represented before considering any of these Orders? The feeling is so great against this kind of work that I hope we shall have some satisfactory reply. Six o'clock in the morning is a wrong hour to make those people go to work, and ten o'clock at night is a wrong hour at which to keep them at work.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I would ask the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, who I understand will reply, if he will give us details of what trades employ people at six in the morning and ten at night?
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Short)
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Kelly) has asked me certain questions in relation to the two-shift Orders and he wants to know whether the employés are consulted. There is provision in the Act for the Joint Industrial Council to make representations, and, if representations are made to the Home Secretary, his power to make Orders in that industry comes to an end. The employés are consulted before the Order is made, and there must be a majority in favour of the Order. There is power to revoke the Order if the conditions laid down by the Home Secretary are not complied with or if abuses of any description have arisen. I am not in a position to say whether any of the Orders have been revoked on these grounds, but I will let the hon. Member know the particulars.
As regards the question put by the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) these orders cover a large number of trades and industries, and it will be very difficult for me to reply without making a long statement. If he wants that information I will certainly send it to him. As regards the principle the Government are in full sympathy with the object of the hon. Member for Rochdale. The two-shift system has found its way into our industrial life. It was first of all regarded as a temporary condition, and at the present time affects some 40,000 workpeople. If the two-shift system was brought to an end this year it would mean grave dislocation and would no doubt contribute to the industrial depression. I can assure the Committee that the Government do not desire or intend that this system shall become a permanent part of our industrial law or our industrial conditions, and at the earliest opportunity they will take steps to ensure that the issue of these orders shall cease on the direction of the Secretary of State.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ The following Amendment stood upon the Order Paper in the name of SIR K. Noon:
"In page 5,to leave out line 11."
§ Sir K. WOOD
This is an Amendment, purely formal, to leave out the Rent Restrictions Act, and I am moving it because this is the only Parliamentary opportunity we shall have of raising a matter which affects many millions of people throughout the country. I say at once, speaking on the part of most hon. Members of this House, that I do not desire to see the Rent Restrictions Act brought to an immediate end, but l do desire to obtain from the Minister of Health some more satisfactory assurances than we have had hitherto on what is generally regarded as a very important matter indeed. It is rather an extraordinary thing that, although this Government has been in for what appears to us a very long time indeed, we have had no opportunity of discussing this Act, and, strange to say, have had no word from the Government on the question. This silence is all the more strange and remarkable when we remember the large number of statements which were made by the present Minister of Health.
No one spoke more freely, no one gave more undertakings, no one I need hardly say gave more promises than the present Minister of Health, but since he attained office and responsibility, there has been complete silence about the Government's intentions in regard to this Act. Only the day before yesterday, an hon. Member below the Gangway, failing legislation by the Government, himself introduced a Bill dealing with this very important matter. It is true that after some 18 months of hesitation and procrastination, the right hon. Gentleman has resorted to the usual refuge of the present Government when they are faced with matters of difficulty and doubt and when they are overwhelmed by the situation 2533 confronting them. He has set up a Committee to consider the Rent Restrictions Act. I have no particular quarrel with setting up a Committee to deal with intricate and difficult questions, but if that was the intention of the Government, if it was their desire that something should be done for both landlords and tenants under the operation of the present Act, then it was very unwise to wait 18 months before taking action. The Minister himself ought to have brought in proposals immediately, or, if he felt that the duty was too much for him, if he felt that the difficulties were so great that he could not take the responsibility of presenting proposals to the House, then he should have set up the committee of inquiry immediately.
I do not think many hon. Members will quarrel with the statement that the very numerous communications which hon. Members receive from both landlords and tenants, concerning the operation of this Act, constitute a matter of constant difficulty to them. I have received numerous complaints, for instance, in connection with small estates in this country as to the impossibility of winding up those estates, owing to the operation of this Act in relation to mortgages. It is a most onerous position in connection with the estates, very often of small people, that at the present time under the Act, in regard to mortgages—
The right hon. Gentleman has not yet moved his Amendment, but I assume from what he has said that he intends to move to leave out lines 5 to 10.
The DEPUTY - CHAIRMAN
The Amendment as it appears on the Order Paper, has been corrected and I would point out that the right hon. Gentleman when he rises, can move any Amendment he likes so long as it is in Order.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I beg to move, in page 5, to leave out lines 5 to 10.
I will move the Amendment in the form desired by the hon. Member. As I was saying before I had this rather unlooked-for assistance from the hon. Gentleman, one of the great difficulties of the present situation arises out of the impossibility of a very large number of beneficiaries being able to receive their proper share under intestacies and wills, and it is most unfortunate, whatever the particular remedy may be, that these people have to face only now the fact that a Committee has been set up. I suppose nobody would care to prophesy when we shall have its recommendations, and still less when the Government, having received those recommendations, if ever, will bring forward any Parliamentary proposals concerning them. Therefore, I think the position of the Government is most unfortunate, and it adds another class to those who are suffering from the procrastinations of the present Administration.
Hon. Members opposite have often raised, and I think rightly, the question of rents under the present Act. have no desire to support any particular view on this occasion, but it is astonishing that the right hon. Gentleman should have such a passive and docile body of followers, who have been content, having regard to the undertakings and promises which they have given, to allow this matter to remain as it has done for so many months, and even now to be content for the matter to be referred to some Select Committee. I have no doubt that hon. Members opposite may desire to say something, I should suppose by way of condemnation, front their point of view, about the matter being left so long, but I think many of us will agree that it is a most unfortunate thing that the Government have allowed for so long, and are still permitting by this device of a Committee, these scandals, as they are in many oases, of sub-letting at very extortionate rents. I think we all know—
§ Sir K. WOOD
That does not deal with the situation. I have constantly heard that complaint from hon. Members opposite during the last few months, but it does not answer the criticism to reply, 2535 "You are responsible for it." That is no answer to the unfortunate people who have to suffer, or to the large number of people who listened to the promises of right lion. Gentlemen who occupy the Government Bench and of their supporters at the last Election. It is no answer to say, "This may be under an Act of Parliament, and therefore we must leave matters as they are." That is an excuse which the Minister of Health frequently gives us at Question Time. He says, "My predecessor did this," or "I am only doing what was done before." That may satisfy hon. Gentlemen on this side, but it can hardly be satisfactory to hon. Gentlemen who support him, and who gave so many undertakings at the last General Election. Therefore, I beg the hon. Gentleman who interrupted ma, to think this matter over, and not to repeat that excuse again.
I was observing that the question of sub-letting demands the attention of the House, and, if necessary, of separate legislation. It is true that the Minister has adopted this device of setting up a committee, but this is a very urgent matter. It is not unusual to find in a large number of cases, especially in industrial centres, a person who is a tenant of premises sub-letting various rooms to tenants at most extortionate rents. Some explanation is required from the right hon. Gentleman why, after the considerable attention which he has given for so many years to these problems, he has not been able to devise some method of dealing with the matter. I can understand him saying that there are certain intricate matters connected with rent restriction, and that he would prefer a committee to inquire into them. I have a great deal of sympathy with that view, and I have no doubt that we shall get from this committee considered views which we should not otherwise obtain. The right hon. Gentleman, however, was so emphatic in days gone by on the question of sub-letting, and was so free with the advice which he gave his predecessors, that I should have thought that he would really have come out with some bold plan in the form of a Bill—
The only question before this Committee is whether these Expiring laws should be continued 2536 or not. It will not be in order to discuss matters involving fresh legislation.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I will avoid that, and will refrain from making any suggestions with regard to legislation. I will put it in this way. After the bold declarations that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and his repeated accusations against his predecessors of inhumanity for not dealing with this matter, one is surprised at being confronted to-night merely with a proposal from the Labour Government to continue this Act for another year. It is rather inhumane both to the tenants and to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, who were maligned so much on this matter, to treat the question in this way. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some explanation. It may be that he has thought over the matter, that he has had advice, and that he has given more study to these problems, and has come to the conclusion that it is better after all for a committee to investigate them.
I do not know that I would venture to quarrel with him on that point but for the fact that he has delayed so long in making up his mind. There are two things about this Government that one can confidently claim; one is that they make up their mind, and the other is that they will not make up their mind; and I do not know which is the worst. This is a case of not making up their mind, and their action in leaving this matter for 18 months is one which we ought to condemn. I wish we had some representatives of the Liberal party here tonight to support us. The hon. Member who is present no doubt worthily represents that party—all sections of it—but after all they have said on the Rent Restriction Acts I had hoped they would have been in better force to-night. Our purpose in raising this matter is to give us an opportunity, which we have not had during this Parliament, of hearing the right hon. Gentleman declare himself, hearing him either make a clean breast of it or offer apologies to the right hon. Member for Edghaston (Mr. Chamberlain) and myself, for all that he has said about us in the past, and hear him also, I hope, indicate some more vigorous action in this matter on the part of the Government.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)
We have had a characteristic speech from ray right hon. Friend—elusive, evasive, inconclusive, the speech we would expect from him on such an occasion. On one matter I agree with him. I. can quite understand that it seems a long time since he crossed the Floor of the House. On one point I must differ from him. He has complained of the delay of this Government in making up their mind. In this we at least have an advantage as compared with the previous Government; by implication we have a mind to make up, and, so far as I recollect, they had not. There are charges about a strange silence, a complete silence, on my part on this subject. Believe me, it is nothing to the profundity of the silence of the right hon. Gentleman when he was in office. Rarely did he raise his voice. He has always added to the gaiety of Parliament, and in order to refresh my memory I have looked back upon most of his speeches on this question. In my rather light study of his speeches, because the hour is late, I have not been able to find any clear statement of opinion on any single problem affecting rent restriction. I have heard him say "on the one hand" and "on the other hand," I have heard him plead for the landlord and for the tenant, but never on any single occasion have I ever heard him give expression to one simple statement of principle or of opinion on this great question. Now he comes forward in armour on his mighty steed, and we do not know whether he is for the tenant or for the landlord. The history of this question shows that three Government committees have been appointed and 10 Acts of Parliament have been introduced, for none of which I was responsible, but for which we can place the responsibility on the party opposite. The last committee to investigate this question was appointed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), and if it is good for him to appoint a committee is it not equally good that I should appoint a committee.
The right hon. Gentleman has dealt with the question of sub-letting, which he says is an urgent problem so important as to demand legislation. May I point out that the scandal of sub- 2538 letting grows less every time a now house is erected, and since 1924 the number of houses built has been very considerable. Scandalous sub-letting depends upon the shortage of houses, and every new house that is built diminishes that difficulty. Six years have elapsed since the late Government had an opportunity of dealing with this urgent scandal, but the problem to-day is not what it was, six years ago.
Why all this new urgency? Why it this question a scandal to-day when it was not considered to be a scandal at the General Election of 1924'? I suppose the reason is that four-and-a-half years ago the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich was unable to express his real mind, and, not having had an opportunity of expressing the faith that was in him, he has now got a great opportunity. The right hon. Gentleman referred to some phrases which he said were. used by me, but I do not remember ever having used them. He pointed the finger at me and said that I was inhuman to the tenants and cruel to my predecessor. My predecessor, I have no doubt, will take care of himself, but I am glad to think that beneath the right hon. Gentleman's waistcoat there throbs a heart that cares for the tenant. After this strangely long period of quiescence on his part, we welcome him as one who cares for the under-dog.
Let me put to the Committee, because the problem is really an important problem, the real question that faces us to-day on this matter of rent restriction. The majority of the houses that exist to-day were built before the War. The majority of these houses, during the War, were controlled. The process of decontrol began in 1923, under legislation directed and inspired by the right hon. Gentleman. We have, therefore, to-day, among pre-War houses, two big groups, those which are controlled and those which have been decontrolled—two categories of houses, the rents of which, so far as one can gather, are widely different. In addition to that, we have a large number of new houses which have been built under various housing schemes, and which have never been rent-restricted at all. We have a situation to-day which is utterly illogical, which is most con- 2539 fused, and which sooner or later will. have to be dealt with on broad and comprehensive lines.
The problem does not end with the fact that to-day people are paying extraordinarily varying prices for the same commodity. It is not merely that. it is true, as the right hon. Gentleman has said—this problem seems to be especially on his mind; I hope that he is not a tenant who has been sub-letting, and I hope that he is not a victim of this sub-letting—it is true that, because of the shortage of houses, there has been subletting of parts of houses at rents which, according to the newspapers and according to inquiries, have been proved to be extortionate. One of the problems which confront everyone who occupies my position is that it is really only by an accident that the Minister of Health happens to be responsible for this particular aspect of legislation. I have no administrative duties to perform in relation to it. No information in the ordinary way of administration comes into my Department with regard to it. I am as much in the dark as any ordinary citizen. What I do know broadly as a citizen is that the process of decontrol has gone on steadily. I do not know precisely how many houses have been decontrolled; no one knows.
When you are faced with a situation like that, unless you are going to take a leap in the dark—and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would never do that; indeed, I am not certain that he would leap in the sunlight—there is a case for inquiry, because this is a problem on which the facts cannot be ascertained by any Department of State apart from independent inquiry. [Interruption.) It is all very well to ask, "Why not?" The right hon. Gentleman knows more about it than I do. He has had three committees of inquiry, while at least this can be said for me, that I have had no lot or part previously in any inquiry on this question. Previous Governments, however, in the short period since 1915, when this system of rent restriction was started, have had three inquiries. There has not been one since 1923, which is seven years ago, and is pretty nearly the middle of the period, so that I think I am behind the average in this matter of inquiries. It is perfectly clear, and all 2540 Members of the Committee know perfectly well, that, if there is a serious intention of dealing with this problem, it can only be done on the basis of lull and impartial inquiry.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why we did not do it last year. Why this urgency on his part? lie says it is no answer to say that he did not do it, but at least it is a fair point to make against him. I have been in office for one-third of the time that he was. I know it seems a long time to the right hon. Gentleman, because he has said so, but other people do not agree. [HON. MEMBERS: "The electors do I"] I am glad to have assistance from hon. Members opposite with regard to unemployment, though it is a new kind of interest we have discovered from the opposite benches. To any body of men, whatever their interest may be in rent restriction, whether they look at it as landlords or tenants or sub-tenants or as members of public authorities—and, after all, public authorities are the largest house owners in the country to-day—it is quite clear that until we have analysed the problem as it exists to-day, further legislation is impossible, and therefore an inquiry had to be set up, and it is now going forward.
The main point is that although the right hon. Gentleman began his speech by calling this a formal Amendment, the effect of it, if it should be carried—and he knows it will not be—would be that the Rent Restrictions Act would come to an end as far as England and Wales are concerned at the end of December, and in Scotland in May of next year. He does not intend that. He dare not go down to West Woolwich and say, "I, on my galloping steed, to-night charged through the ranks of the Government and abolished rent restriction." He is in that mood to-night, but he could not do it, and it is perfectly clear, as everybody knows, that the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment must be withdrawn. As long as there happens to be a pressing need for these old houses which are rent-restricted, it would not be fair in the interests of the large masses of people who to-day live in them, to abolish rent restriction. I cannot argue the merits of rent restriction, and I satisfy myself with saying that I think we have been well advised to set up this inquiry, that it will be an exhaustive inquiry which will throw light on the problem, and will 2541 give us guidance for future legislation to deal with a very complicated problem. I end on this note, that however amusing the right hon. Gentleman may be on this occasion, he realises equally that this problem is one of very considerable gravity, and that we cannot pretend at this stage to leave the Rent Restrictions Act to die at the end of December. Whatever the sins the present Government may have committed, the Rent Restrictions Act must be continued for another year.
§ Captain BOURNE
We have all enjoyed, I think, the passage-at-arms between the two right hon. Gentlemen. There are one or two questions I want to put to the Government. First of all, can the Minister say when he hopes the committee will report? We all realise that it is a very difficult question in which there are many hardships both to landlord and tenant, but I hope that the committee will report with reasonable diligence, because the sooner this matter can be cleared up the better.
The other point that I want to put is this. The Act applies both to this country and to Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman has put up two inquiries, one dealing with the ordinary operations of the Rent Restriction Act and another jointly with the Minister of Agriculture dealing with tied cottages. Presumably the report of the two committees will not be altogether suitable for Scotland because, as I understand the law of the two countries, the law of leasehold and the letting of properties is completely different and I very much doubt whether the law relating to England will be suitable for Scotland, and we ought to know whether the Scottish Office is proposing to hold a similar inquiry, so that if the English Committee makes a report on which it is possible to found legislation, we shall be able to legislate simultaneously for Scotland. It would not be a good thing if we abolished or modified rent restriction in this country and kept on the old form in Scotland. I feel that we ought to have a statement both from the right hon. Gentleman and from the Secretary of State for Scotland on what, after all, is a purely formal Amendment, because it is the only chance of asking. the Government what they propose to do.
§ Mr. HARBORD
I was struck, in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Woolwich (Sir Kingsley Wood), with the valuable time he took up while contributing so little to the debate in the way of solid matter. It gave me the impression that he was simply playing with time with a view to an election which he hoped might come in the early future. It is a matter of great surprise to me that, when a Minister of the Crown, he did not take advantage of the ample opportunities on so many occasions to do something to cure the evils that exist under the present Rent Restrictions Acts. There are many useful suggestions he could have made. For one thing, there is the large number of houses that are being held up for extortionate prices and the people who by force of circumstances have had to pay extortionate prices to get houses to cover their heads. That is far more important than trifling with the time of the House. This is my third Parliament, and I can never remember anything in the way of practical suggestions for the benefit of the masses of the people that has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. He is the cheeky little cock-sparrow of politics
§ Sir D. HERBERT
Now that the House has spent the, best part of an hour listening to the representatives of the two Front Benches indulging in mutual recriminations and a certain amount of scintillating wit—and they have since been joined in a similar occupation by the temporary acting leader of the Liberal party—it is perhaps excusable for a back bench Member who was not necessarily quite satisfied with all that was done by the last Government any more than hon. Members opposite to try and see if he can introduce a slight element of seriousness into the debate. I trust that the few observations which I want to make may occasionally be heard in between the fits of rather noisy laughter which always come at this time of night from a certain quarter of the House. There are one or two things which ought to be said on this subject which have not been said in the debate to-night. Personally, I feel very considerable doubt indeed, in spite of what has been said, as to whether the balance 2543 of argument is or is not in favour of continuing the operation of these Acts as they are at the present time.
I can imagine what would have happened if we had been sitting on that side of the House and hon. Members opposite had been sitting here—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member will be kind enough to allow me to continue, he will, no doubt, be able to answer my speech afterwards if he wishes. I can imagine the hard things which would have been said if complaints of this scandal-and it is nothing less than a scandal-of sub-letting, had been treated by Members of the Conservative party with the levity with which it was treated by the Minister in charge to-night. If you take the undoubted scandal there is with regard to sub-letting, if you take the comparatively small amount of hardship there is at the present time with regard to the control of houses, and if you take the real and serious hardship which arises where control exists unfairly and unnecessarily, I doubt very much indeed whether the balance of argument would be in favour of a continuation of that control.
The question of mortgage interest has not been referred to. It would have been perfectly easy for the Government, if they had devoted a little attention and thought to this matter, to have continued these Acts only in part, in order to free mortgages from the operation of the Acts. There are innumerable cases known to every member of my profession where the winding up of estates has been delayed for years owing to the impossibility of calling in mortgages on those small properties. In 99 eases out of 100 it would be no hardship if these mortgages were called in. Mortgages on small property of this kind mostly represent the investment of the small savings of the poor classes in this country. The cases are innumerable in which sensibly-minded, careful people who had a few hundred pounds that they had saved put the money into what ought to be a sound and good security, namely, mortgages on small property. In many cases where a man has died in the early days of these Acts, those coming after him would have been immensely benefited if his savings, to which they were entitled on his death, could have been placed at their disposal, 2544 to enable them to start in business, or something of that kind, instead of the whole business being stuck under these Acts, so that they could not get the money, and they see no prospect of getting it. The Government might at least have freed the mortgages from the operations of these Acts, and I sincerely hope that whatever Government may be in power in another year, if rent restriction of some kind should be necessary, that it will be continued by some new, modified and much less extensive Act, which will protect the really hard case where protection is wanted and will do away with the immense amout of hardship and the immense amount of injury to legitimate business and finance which exists at the present time under the operation of Acts which are thoroughly and absolutely out of date.
§ Captain CROOKSHANK
I want to put in a word on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) in reply to the extraordinary attack made by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Harbord). If the hon. Member for Yarmouth had any idea of the kind of work which my right hon. Friend did during the four and a-half years that he was a Minister of the Crown, he would not have spoken as he did. I suppose the reason why he has harboured such extraordinary views is that he was not a Member of this House at that time, and therefore, presumably, he was not following with the attention that it deserved the political activities of this House. I congratulate the Minister of Health on the fact that he has at last realised, in his own words, that it was necessary to set up a committee for his own guidance. Eighteen months ago members of the party opposite and of the Government knew everything about everything. It is satisfactory to us to learn that at last they have realised some of the difficulties of governing this great country, and that they have not got the absolute monopoly of brains and intelligence which they claimed to have, because they have found it necessary to set up, I believe, to date, 55 committees to assist them in the work to which they have set their hands.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
Some hon. Members on the Labour benches are treating this as a matter for laughter, but it is a very serious matter affecting the great mass 2545 of the working-classes. What was said from the opposite benches is true in this respect that the Rent Restrictions Acts have never been continued without a protest having been made from the Labour benches that an amending Bill was not brought in to reduce rents. One hon. Member has asked if Scotland is to be included in the Inter-Departmental Committee's inquiry. There are Scottish representatives on the committee. One committee which was appointed since 1923—I think by the last Government—to deal with the question of Scotland did report, but the late Government introduced no legislation on the lines of the report. I want to make it perfectly plain to-night that one of the matters in connection with that report was a recommendation for a reduction of the rents that were ruling in Scotland. The 'Committee should realise that when the Rent Restriction Act was passed it was based on the high rates of wages. All these years have gone by and wages have come down, yet there has been no corresponding reduction in rent. I think that the Government might have introduced legislation along those lines, but I do not want to pursue that matter. There does not seem to be a representative of the Scottish Office on the Front Bench now that this matter is being raised. On every occasion when it has been before the House we have protested when the Tory Secretary of State for Scotland or the Under-Secretary was not present. T think that either the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary should be here to-night to deal with the situation in Scotland.
As the Minister of Health knows, there are at present two categories—the houses 'which are controlled and those which are decontrolled. In Scotland, and more especially in the West of Scotland, the Labour Housing Association are having a very difficult time because of the uncertainty whether the houses are controlled or not. They have raised this matter with the Lord Advocate. This is one of the meet urgent questions in the West of Scotland, particularly in view of the uncertainty that exists and the impossibility of getting the Lord Advocate to act in regard to prosecutions that might be undertaken under the Rent Restric- 2546 tion Acts. I am sorry that the Lord Advocate is not here to-night nor any one representing the Scottish Office, as this matter was to a very large extent due to action begun in Scotland. It is intolerable that this Bill should be allowed to go through without a protest. We ought to be able to get some assurance from the Scottish Office that these people will receive some protection. Rents are being charged for houses which the tenants maintain are controlled houses, but 'which the factors maintain are decontrolled. When the Lord Advocate has been asked about the matter, he has said that he cannot take action until the question has been settled in the Scottish Courts.
Some of us are of the opinion that the Act clearly gives the Government an opportunity of taking action in any case where the landlord is seeking to obtain more than the standard rent. The position of the tenant is that if he goes into the civil court and loses his case he has to pay£20, his wages would be seized and he would lose his employment. I have put such a, case to the Lord Advocate and have been informed that the person did not wish to pursue the matter further. I found afterwards from the constituent himself that that was the position. He was afraid to face an action in the civil court in case he lost it, and I hold that the Lord Advocate, in view of the Blackburn decision of the Court of Session, should take action in some of the cases which have been put before him by the Labour Housing Association. I was much interested in the badinage between the late Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Health and the allegations of insincerity which the right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) applied to my right hon. Friend. My own Bill has been introduced and it is wide enough to deal with the question of sub-letting which seems to interest the right hon. Member for West Woolwich so much. I hope he will see that no hon. Member on his side of the House will oppose the Second Reading. I think the Minister of Health will be quite willing to give an assurance that as far as he is concerned—
§ Mr. STEPHEN
Anyway, I take it that the right hon. Member for West Woolwich is going to show his sincerity in that way.
§ Mr. CHARLES WILLIAMS
I am glad that the debate has been brought back to a serious level. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has made what is often described as a characteristic speech. He enumerated all the Acts which have been passed by his predecessors and then he made a complete summary of the present Government's position. I can summarise his summary in one sentence: "Thank goodness we have done nothing except appoint a committee."
§ Mr. SULLIVAN
I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). I understand that there will be another opportunity of raising this question, but it is regrettable that something has not been done up to now in the matter and that it has not been treated as seriously as we in Scotland wish it to be treated. There has been a great amount of trouble in Scotland and various methods have been employed to de-control houses. In the case of a tenement, for instance, one tenant may be persuaded to move out and then all the other tenants are moved round and the whole tenement is declared to be de-controlled. On this side of the Border the assumption is that when a house is empty and the landlord lets it to a new tenant, it is decontrolled. The only case which has been brought to the Court of Session in Scotland on the point is that mentioned by the hon. Member for Camlachie and it was decided in that case that the fact of one tenant leaving a house and another coming in, did not constitute de-control. As a matter of fact, according to the law in Scotland, there is scarcely any such thing as a de-controlled house. While in England, as I say, the assumption is that it is only necessary to shift out one tenant and put in another and to declare the house de-controlled. That is unfortunate, because it is an evasion of the Act and once the owner has de-control, he can put up the rent to any figure he likes and the tenant has no redress. In cases where there is a scarcity of houses that is a great hardship. As to the suggestion which has been made from the other side in regard to sub-letting, we regret 2548 that houses are sub-let, but hon. Members must bear in mind that it is not only the poor who sub-let. All over London and a great part of England one finds the same thing. Indeed, it is more common here than it is on our side of the Border. If we are going to pass legislation of any kind, the great thing will be to see that the Act is kept in such a way that the tenant will get the advantage from it which he was entitled to get.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. Schedule agreed to.
§ Preamble agreed to.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.