HC Deb 21 May 1931 vol 252 cc2355-67

Order for Third Reading read.

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


I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and, at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."

I move the rejection of this Bill in the hope that some Member of the Government may be able to give some explanation as to why the Bill is necessary. The only explanations that we have had so far were in speeches that did not give good reasons for the Bill, but which gave reasons rather why we should not have the Bill. The Assistant Postmaster-General, in the opening speech on the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill, gave lots of reasons why we should not have it. He told us what a splendid postal and telephone system we had, that we were the third telegraph nation in the world, and that London was the third city in the world, only surpassed by New York and Chicago. I am not disputing those facts, and I am not saying that this money ought not to be spent; I am merely inquiring whether we need to spend the money and whether there is anyone on the Front Bench opposite who is able to administer this money if we grant it to the Government.

Last night, on this Bill, I tried to put down an Amendment to limit the length of time for which this proposal to raise money should operate. It is conceivable—and I believe the argument has got into the publication known as the Liberal Yellow Book—that by developing telephones to-day you may do good. If there is plenty of money, and if there is a large number of people out of work, I can see that there may be a great deal of good in using this money for the development of the telephone system. I do not think that this is as good a use for the money as you could possibly find for it, because there is nothing that is much more objectionable than having to use the telephone. To my mind, it is a most unpleasant form of communication and one which in this country causes you to waste a colossal amount of time, but that is because of its bad administration. I admit that two years ago, when we had an efficient Postmaster-General, it was not so bad. If the Government are going to justify taking £32,000,000 of national money, which must be taken out of trade, for the development of telephones, they will have to put up the strongest possible case for it.

Can we be assured that this money has to be paid back in 20 years and that there is any chance of the whole of it returning in due course to the funds from which it is being taken? We ought to have a clear assurance on that point. Another reason why I am justified in moving the rejection of the Bill is that at no time during the progress of the Measure have we had a representative of the Treasury present. When we are dealing with a large sum of money we might at least have some guarantee from the Treasury that there will be effective administration, and that the Treasury will look into the expenditure carefully. Under this Bill there is a limit of £32,000,000. The Assistant-Postmaster-General told us on Second Reading that he had £2,000,000 in hand. At the present rate of expenditure that ought to carry him on for two or three months. By the end of that time we may know the case for this Bill.

If the Government can give me a real reason to show that they are doing something to develop trade and industry, I will not take this matter to a Division. If I could trust right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite to handle money, I should not be forced to take this line. I know I would not be justified in handing this money over to them, and I could not go to my constituents and say that I voted for handing over money to the most incompetent individuals who ever sat on the Front Bench. Not one of them would expect me to do a thing like that, and if I said that they were competent to look after half a crown, they would doubt my word. I do not want the kind of woolly speeches that we had on Friday and last night. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am glad that hon. Members opposite agree with me. They are apparently as dissatisfied as I am at what has been happening. I hope that the Postmaster-General will even at this last moment get up and make some case in favour of the Bill. I wish to make it clear that I am not against telephone development, that I wish for the best telephone development; but I move the rejection of the Bill because I think we have an incompetent Postmaster-General and Assistant Postmaster-General, who are letting their staff go back upon the standards reached a few years ago, and that there is no justification for our granting more money.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I do this not because I am opposed to the development of telephones, but because I am opposed to the further waste of money on their development under the present grossly inefficient system. I might not feel so strongly on this matter if there were any signs of repentance on the part of the representatives of the Post Office, but when the late Postmaster-General, who has now transferred his inactivities to the Board of Education, gets up, as he did in the Recess, and talks about his gloriously efficient department, it is time one or two voices were raised in this House on behalf of the un- fortunate telephone user and the unfortunate taxpayer. While telephones remain under the present grossly inefficient system £32,000,000 spent on their development will be money absolutely poured down the drain. I was pained by the speech of my Noble Friend the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer) when he spoke last night upon the Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member for West Dorset (Major Colfox), who moved to reduce the Vote. I have always respected my Noble Friend as being the one person who, when he was in office, had the courage to show up the incompetency and inefficiency of the system. He was very much attacked for those speeches, and I admire him enormously for the courage he showed in standing up to his point of view, but I was pained to hear him last night supporting even an extra £5,000,000 being spent on this inefficient system.

We are told of the wonders of our telephone and telegraph service and how we are third, in point of numbers, as compared with certain other countries. Numbers are no criterion of efficiency. People in this country have the telephone not because they think it is good or efficient, but because of the requirements of the age in which we live. People have got to have the telephone, however bad it is. I remember that during the last General Election, when the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill)—I think it was he—promised large extensions of telephones in the rural areas, many people in my district replied, in effect, "Thank you for nothing. It is a rotten institution, for which we are grossly overcharged, and we would not have it as a gift." That is the attitude of a great many people towards the telephones of the country. I have had the good fortune or misfortune to spend a considerable time in countries on the Continent, and I have never known any telephone system there which was so rife with delays, wrong numbers and breakdowns as the telephone system of this country.




Germany! It is infinitely better there. The hon. Member may shake his head. It is a point on which we may differ, but from my per- sonal experience I consider the telephone system of Germany, from the point of view of actual efficiency, speed in getting into touch with the person at the other end, is infinitely better than ours. I am not speaking about value for money, because I am not certain of the charges in Germany. That is definitely my experience. I have not touched upon the question of actual value for money, for the reasons which I have given, but I am certain of this, that there is one thing, and one thing only, that is wrong with the telephone system. The fault does not lie in the personality of various Postmasters-General, as has been suggested, but in the fundamental principle that, when the State touches business, it always makes a mess of it. I am perfectly straight, because any more money thrown into the gutter after the State has been mismanaging a concern, is absolutely useless. To continue State inefficiency at this moment, when we need every penny we can get to put our industries right, is absolute idiocy. The Motion for reduction is absolutely justified. No further money should be spent until the telephone service has been put on a proper and efficient basis, which can only be done on a system of private enterprise.


For one reason only, I do not support the Amendment that has been moved by my hon. Friend from this side of the House. I concur with them in feeling very doubtful as to whether the country will get value for this money; the reasons why I am doubtful I have made plain on more than one occasion. Briefly, those reasons are, that it is perfectly impossible to get value for money so long as the Post Office remains a Department of State. The reason that I do not feel disposed to support the rejection of the Bill is because I have a good deal of faith—and I say it as a frank gesture to a political enemy—in the hon. and gallant Gentleman who at present occupies the position of Postmaster-General. I believe that he approaches his duties' with an open mind. I have been very interested to observe lately that, while questions of the transference of the Post Office to a public utility company have been frequently mentioned, he has never closed the door upon that as a solution of Post Office development. He has wisely come to his office prepared to consider the different alternatives. Respecting his loyalty to his Department, we can only conclude that he is as conscious as are many of us on this side of the shortcomings of the Department, and of the system which makes that Department so valuable. There is one thing about which, if he will not mind, I should like to counsel him at the outset, and that is not to let the miasma of this Department settle on him at an early stage of his career as its political representative. It is the most dangerous Department in the Government. You get that miasma of complacency and self-satisfaction which has been displayed by Postmaster-General after Postmaster-General for the last 50 years. I detected traces of it in the speech of the Assistant Postmaster-General last Friday. He was taking great credit for the fact that a letter could be delivered in Aberdeen on the next day after that on which it was posted, forgetting that he was really giving credit to the private enterprise that runs the railways, which alone enables the Post Office to perform that function.

Two or three rather appropriate incidents have occurred within my own personal experience since the hon. Gentleman made that speech. I would ask him whether he knows that, if you post a letter at Newbury at four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, it does not reach Winchester, only 20 miles away, before 11 o'clock on the following morning—it is not delivered by the first poet on the Monday morning; and whether he is aware that that is considerably slower than the stage coach used to be on that route 100 years ago? It may be news to the Post Office, but very considerable developments have taken place in the realm of transport since 1832. There have been the locomotive, the petrol engine, the aeroplane, and various other developments, which really do justify us in expecting some little greater speed than was attained by the Post Office in 1832, whereas as a matter of fact the rate of progress appears to be a good deal slower.

Take another instance, which is particularly germane to this Bill. The Postmaster-General, in introducing the Bill, stated that he was not asking for more because he had no less than 25 per cent. of spare parts; so that, with this 25 per cent. of spare parts to carry on with, he had a capital surplus of that extent to launch him on his new programme. I can tell him of a case within my personal knowledge in which an extension telephone, which was ordered more than two months ago in an area not 30 miles from London, was only fixed the day before yesterday—an ordinary Plan III extension; and that is with 25 per cent. of spare parts with which he is going to accelerate the programme and assist in the development of the organisation.

My third instance concerns me personally. I had the misfortune to leave my sponge bag behind at the week-end, and directed that it should be posted to me from my home, 70 miles away; and it was posted at half-past eight on Monday morning. It was a package weighing 1 pound 4 ounces, and it did not arrive in London till midday on the following day. I will not pursue this matter in detail, except to this extent, that it indicates that there is no ground for complacency on the part of the Postmaster-General in regard to the system which he is administering. He is credited by Parliament with this large sum of money; he comes to his office with, as we hope, an open mind, prepared to assist in developing a system which very sadly needs developing. We can assure him from this side of the House that there is widespread public discontent and dissatisfaction with the system that he is administering. There is a burden upon him to administer this money properly; we look forward to reports of progress from time to time as to how he is getting on; and only if he makes a successful use of this money will he justify the confidence which Parliament is reposing in him in voting him the money which we propose to vote to-night.


I rise to answer one or two points which have been put to me. The matter has already been very fully discussed, but the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) asked me a question regarding the acceleration of the programme put forward by the Lord Privy Seal when I was not a member of the Government. The position was that owing to the fall in prices there was a certain amount of extra money in hand, a considerable amount having been returned as a result of contracts depend- ing on the cost of material and so forth, and the programme laid down by our predecessors had not been fully developed. Therefore, when my right hon. Friend came in he was able to take steps which did, in fact, accelerate the programme of work to the extent of £750,000 in the first year and about the same in the second year. With regard to the speech of the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), I would point out that the hon. Member lost a great deal by not being here at the first discussion of the Bill, because he could not inform his mind as fully as he otherwise would have been able to do.


I was here the whole of Friday and listened to every word that the Assistant Postmaster-General said and to a great deal of the speeches of many other hon. Members.


I was referring to an earlier occasion when the main discussion on the Financial Resolution took place and when these points were brought out more fully. The hon. Member asked me two points. I was not quite clear as to the first point, but the answer is in the affirmative. As to the spare parts in hand, two months have passed since the Financial Resolution was first introduced. If the hon. Member was running a business I do not think he would wait to ask for more money until he has entirely run out. I think he will understand now that the Amendment he moved last night was exactly in the contrary sense to that which he intends.

The speech of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Beaumont) consisted almost entirely of invective and was marked by a total absence of facts. We are now geting a new generation in this House, and it is clear that the hon. Member could not have had any experience of the old telephone system before it was taken over by the State in 1912; otherwise, he would not have made such remarks. I thank the hon. Member for Central Nottingham (Mr. O'Connor) for his kind remarks, though I do not think his speeches on this subject are quite up to his usual form, because he seems to have had a very unfortunate experience with telephones which has rather warped his whole outlook. Next time he speaks on this subject, I hope he will go into more detail. I trust the House will not want to sit very late to-night as the subject has already been debated so fully before.


The hon. Gentleman said just now that it was two months ago when he had £2,000,000 in hand. I see from Friday's Debate it was still there last Friday. Has he spent that sum since then?


That is rather a debating point. The resolution was introduced on the facts at that time in regard to the money in hand. The Resolution stated the position as it then was, but it was nearly two months ago that the Resolution was first introduced. In any case it is not a point of great substance as the Bill still has to go to another place, and, therefore, the hon. Member may rest assured that then; will be no waste and that the money will all be used.


The hon. Gentleman referred to a total absence of facts in my speech, last night. That is because of the late hour. If I give him the facts, will he pay rather more attention to them than his predecessor, who paid none?


I am not aware what facts were put before my predecessor or what attention he gave to them but, if the hon. Member will give me the facts, I will certainly look into them.

Mr. DEPUTY - SPEAKER (Mr. Dunnico)

May I point out that this is the Third Reading of a Bill, the purpose of which is to spend money on development. This is not the occasion to discuss matters of administration. There will be other opportunities for that.


It may be to the advantage of the Postmaster-General to hear the view of one who has had some experience of telephone systems in other countries. First may I remind the House that on Friday last the Assistant Postmaster-General made the following statement: It will probably be as well if hon. and right hon. Members understand that all of the £32,000,000 referred to in this Bill, with the exception of £2,800,000, is for the telephone service. As was stated in the Debate on the Financial Resolution, we have about £2,000,000 in hand."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May, 1931; col. 1495, Vol. 252.] So that my hon. Friend who does such good work in the House and is so useful in putting hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench in their place, from time to time, is, it appears, not a child but a very grown-up person who knows better what, the Assistant Postmaster-General says than the Postmaster-General himself does.

12 m.

I always deprecate running down anything that belongs to this country simply for the sake of doing so. I will not say our system is extraordinarily good, because it is not. It is a useful, though from time to time a most irritating, system but, generally speaking, there is very little difference between this and other countries. For 21 years I did all my business through the longdistance telephone. [An HON. MEMBER: "You were a bookmaker."] Even if I was it is a good thing to be a successful bookmaker. In my case it would have been a good test of a telephone. I have also used the long-distance telephone here and I find that this country is quite comparable with any other. We hear of new brooms sweeping clean. The new Postmaster-General has had the great advantage of a tremendous amount of very friendly criticism from these benches on all aspects of his administration. I sincerely hope that he will not forget all the things he has heard during these Debates, but that he will ponder over them and see if he can adopt some of the suggestions which have been made in good faith in the most friendly spirit. Suggestions have been made, not in a party spirit, but in a friendly way, to help a new man, who, we all hope, Will succeed in his career. The sum of £32,000,000 requires a lot of spending, and it needs careful spending. As a good Scot and one who has had a great deal of experience in having to spend other people's money, I know how necessary it is to be very careful. I sincerely hope due care will be taken over every pound that is spent, because we are here for the purpose of looking after the interests of the taxpayers. When they hear that this large sum of money has been voted on the day before Whitsun holidays they will want to know the reason why. They will want to know if we were all in our places and did our duty by telling the Postmaster-General that we were going to go through the estimates very thoroughly to see that everything was done in the interests of the taxpayers. I should like to say that, although the Government are well represented and the official Opposition are well represented, there is only one representative of the Liberal party present.


On a point of personal explanation. May I point out that the Liberal party is represented as well proportionately as the party of my hon. Friend.


I cannot go into that matter. I should be out of order if I attempted to discuss the proportional representation of the Liberal party at this hour of the night. I have no doubt whatever that after the next General Election we shall see a similar number of Liberals in the House, but, being out of Order, I do not intend to pursue the matter. I hope that the Postmaster-General will take these criticisms to heart and that next year, when the estimates of the Department come before us, we shall be able to congratulate him, if he is still in his place, upon a better administration.


I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again." I wish to be allowed to give my reason for so doing.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Dunnico)

The hon. Member apparently forgets that the House is not in Committee.


Then may I move "That the Debate be now adjourned?" I wish, in all seriousness, to raise a very important point and to give my reasons for desiring to move that Motion. In the first place, the Bill is a Money Bill involving the expenditure of £32,000,000 sterling. The word "Treasury" occurs in every Clause and in nearly every Subsection of the Bill. It says: The Treasury may issue out of the Consolidated Fund. The Treasury may, if they think fit. The Treasury may also, if they think fit. The Treasury is mainly responsible for securing and handing over the money to the Post Office, and I desire to protest, because there is not a member of the Treasury present on the Front Bench opposite. [HON. MEMBERS: "There is."] Then I will ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury if he will answer two questions. I understand that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is busy with the Budget. Therefore I hope the Patronage Secretary will answer my questions. In Clause 1 (2) it is provided that the Treasury may borrow by means of terminable annuities for a term not exceeding 20 years. Why is the issue of these annuities limited to 20 years? At the present time the rate of money is very cheap, and loans for the Post Office could be obtained for this purpose for 45 or 50 years at a lower rate than for 20 years. I hope the Patronage Secretary will be able to answer the question. I have never heard him make a speech in the House, except to say, "To-morrow." Clause 1 (4) says: (4) The Treasury may also, if they think fit, for the same purpose borrow money by means of the issue of Exchequer Bonds, and the Capital Expenditure. I have always thought that there was some limit of the amount of interest which these bonds can bear. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why there is a limit? There is another reason why the Financial Secretary to the Treasury should be here. The Postmaster-General is new to his position, and he cannot know all the details of these financial clauses. Moreover, there might well be questions which have arisen since the Financial Resolution was discussed, which require an answer from the Financial Secretary. It is treating the House with scant courtesy that the Treasury is not represented to-night by someone who can deal with these financial matters.

Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE

I beg to second the Motion.


Under Standing Order No. 23, I must exercise my power of discretion and decline to accept the Motion.

Question, "That the word 'now' stands part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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