HC Deb 01 March 1938 vol 332 cc1064-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £900,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1938, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones.

11.42 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Major Tryon)

Out of the total amount of this Supplementary Estimate, £530,000 is for engineering salaries, etc., and a very similar sum, £520,000, is for contract work. There is also additional expenditure of £100,000 for motors arising out of the additional business that has been done by the Post Office. It is a greater charge than was expected. When there is new work, part is charged to capital and part is charged to current expenditure. Rather more of the charge is current expenditure than was expected.

The interesting part of the Vote is that a large amount of it is due to the very great increase in the engineering staff of the Post Office, which in itself is due to the increase of business. We thought that the increase in staff would be 3,500; as a matter of fact it amounted to no fewer than 6,000 up to the end of the current month. The total number of the engineering staff is 42,000, which is a measure of the amount of work which is being done by the Post Office for the public, and particularly by the engineering staff. Tremendous development occurred in 1936, when we made an extension of telephones in use of nearly 250,000, and we drew very heavily on our stores. Now we are replenishing our stores in preparation for further extension which, the Committee will be glad to hear, is still going on. We are replenishing so as to have plenty in hand for future development. There are numerous details in this Vote, and perhaps it would meet the convenience of the Committee if I dealt with particular points raised by hon. Members rather than go into details with which they may not be specially concerned.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Viant

It is rather deplorable that an Estimate relating to such an important Department should be brought before the Committee at this hour of the night. It appears to me that the Treasury is the one Department that is interested in any of these Estimates, but nevertheless from my point of view the Post Office is a Department of considerable importance as far as this Committee is concerned. I wish to put a few questions to the Postmaster-General in the hope of eliciting a little more information and, what is more important, of enabling the Committee to appreciate the extraordinary development that is taking place in the Post Office.

On page 28, under Sub-head A.5, we are told that additional provision is required to cover the cost of handling a larger volume of stores. I should be glad if we could have some further explanation of what that means. Is it that more buildings are necessary for the warehousing of stores, or it is a question of extending existing warehouses? Subhead B relates to additional provision for training and other services. I take it that this means the training of more men, and if that is so I think the Committee' will be interested to hear from what source these men are drawn, and for which departments they are being trained. As regards sub-head C, I would ask for some information on the extent to which the regionalisation recommended by the Bridgeman Committee has developed.

A very interesting and, I think, helpful proposal is referred to in Sub-head F, which relates to grants to refreshment clubs not provided in the original Estimate. The Committee will be interested to know just what developments have taken place in connection with these refreshment clubs, of the advantages of which to the employés of the Department hon. Members may not be completely aware. I note that £70,000 is required for uniform clothing, and the Committee will be interested to learn to what extent this amount is necessitated by the increase in the price of these uniforms. In existing circumstances, and in the light of the Estimates that have already been considered, the Committee will no doubt be prepared to expect that there has been a considerable increase in the price that the Department has been called upon to pay for uniforms.

To what extent have accidents increased and can we have a comparative figure? Are they in any way due to increased mechanisation and have any of them arisen as a result of the motor transport used by the Department? A sum of £520,000 is required for the building up of stocks. Does this mean that the Department is buying in anticipation of an advance in prices, and has the right hon. Gentleman set up a committee to watch closely the operation of rings, because already I understand the Department has felt the effect of the operation of certain rings in and outside this country. A very large sum, £430,000, is required for the training of extra workmen. I have asked before from what source these workmen are to be obtained. I understand that the business that is being done by the Savings Bank is developing very rapidly. A sum of £118,000 is required. What is this for? Is it for the purpose of any special branch of development connected with the Savings Bank?

11.54 p.m.

Mr. E. Smith

A large proportion of this additional sum is required for the purpose of carrying out engineering work. Some time ago the Parliamentary Secretary visited Stoke-on-Trent and stated at a social function that in the near future an announcement would be made regarding a new site for a new post office.

The Deputy-Chairman

I am afraid the question of the erection of a new post office cannot be raised on this Vote.

Mr. Smith

During the past 12 months according to answers I have received, steps are being taken to find a suitable site—

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Member cannot pursue that on this Estimate. It arises on Post Office and Revenue Buildings.

Mr. Smith

I was asking whether any of this additional sum has been spent in that survey with regard to the site, and a definite statement with regard to the surveying that has taken place.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Taylor

The Estimate shows that there has been a considerable expansion of work during the year, and that much of it has been let out to subcontractors. Will the Postmaster-General tell us what steps are taken to ensure that the fair wages clause is observed by these sub-contractors? He is aware of a case I brought to his notice some time ago, in respect to which, after making investigations, he found it necessary to make some adjustments. If that case had not been brought to his notice, some poor workmen, who are unorganised and unable to help themselves, would have been deprived of the money which the Department has been able to get for them. Is it not possible that there is a multiplicity of such cases?

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Member must raise that on the main Estimate.

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood

There is an item relating to additional provision which is required in consequence of (a) a large increase in the number of workmen to be trained owing to continued telephone development, and (b) the expansion of the works programme chargeable against the Vote. Do the Post Office make a point of carrying out these works, as far as possible, through their own Works Department, and will the Postmaster-General see that such of the work as they are not able to carry out—

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Gentleman knows that this item deals with salaries paid by the Post Office. Local contracts are another matter.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will you allow the Assistant Postmaster-General to reply to that, Captain Bourne?

11.58 p.m.

Mr. Sexton

On page 29, there is an additional provision of £4,000 for losses through default. Is there no scheme of fidelity bond to meet cases of default and theft? Is there no insurance—

The Deputy-Chairman

That is a matter of general policy.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

It is very disconcerting for Members of the Opposition to be faced with a Supplementary Estimate of this importance at midnight. The Department is one of the most valuable Departments of the State. They have called forth in the last few years considerable praise from all sections of the business community as well as from many Departments for the manner in which the general work of that great Department and its large series of commercial and productive undertakings is proceeding. We do not at all desire to-night to advance criticisms against the political Heads of this Department or the manner of dealing with what must necessarily be very heavy and large administrative changes following upon the development of the work of such a Department. On the other hand, I am sure that the Postmaster-General will see that there is something in the point of view of criticism or praise of Members of the House of Commons who watch the Civil Votes and who really feel that, in relation to the national Budget for the year, there should be something like close budgeting, although one would make more allowances for a revenue-earning Department like the Post Office than for other Departments. Nevertheless, when you are faced with a gross additional sum of £1,500,000 required for the year, one begins to wonder whether there has been quite the foresight, and the forensic concentration upon the possible developments of the year when the original Estimates were prepared and submitted to Parliament. I think that the Postmaster-General might be willing, as head of the Department, to make a statement in Committee of Supply—this matter has been raised again and again in the House of Commons—as to the necessity, if we are to have anything like stable financing, for keeping much closer to the actual estimated expenditure for the year without having to submit such large Supplementary Estimates. I hope that that point will be taken note of and replied to.

There are one or two special points that I would like to raise on this very important Supplementary Estimate. I would draw the attention of the Postmaster-General to the anticipated savings on page 27, I do not know whether my hon. Friends, especially those who are interested in the development of the Air Services, have observed that there is an actual saving put down as against the gross Estimate of no less than £287,000 on the conveyance of mails by air. I am not at all clear from the necessarily bald statement that must appear in an accounting statement as to how that sum is arrived at. Is it because the projected use of the Air Mail Service at the time that the original Estimates were drawn has not been followed and that other methods of transmitting mails have been followed instead of that of expanding the Air Mail Service, or is it because the Postmaster-General is able, by a new and wider development of the Air Mail Service, to show an actual net saving on the general transmission of mails of £287,000? I think that that is a very notable point in the opinion of those who are interested in the Air Mail Service, and I should very much like to have information with regard to the matter.

Another point about which I should like to ask arises on page 29 in regard to Item "G 4," which deals with motor vehicles and petrol supply. Here we are asked to provide an additional £100,000, which is accounted for in the main by two items—the increase in the price of petrol and the additional vehicles for the transport of engineering workmen. I do not want to say anything about the vehicles, but I want to ask about the arrangements made by the Post Office for petrol supply. We know that, in the main, combine-firms are engaged in the supply of petrol, whether they are by large contract or by individual supply.

The Deputy-Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is now going on to the general question of Post Office contracts, and that is out of Order on this Vote, which is concerned only with the increased sum required.

Mr. Alexander

I think I am entitled to ask, on a Vote like this, which includes the extra cost of petrol, whether the fact that such extra cost has to be paid is due to the necessity of making contracts with a combine, and whether those contracts could have been made with a non-combine firm in order to save that extra cost. That is a matter of great importance, and I have had a little experience on the subject. Two of the large firms outside the combine work rigidly to a price-level schedule, and there are two others which do not necessarily do so, I think we are entitled to ask whether, in dealing with the expensive brands—

The Deputy-Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is not in order on this occasion, which is concerned with a very small increase on the main Estimate.

Mr. Alexander

I still require an explanation why it is necessary to make this extra payment for petrol and whether proper advantage was taken, and proper arrangements were made, before this extra price was incurred, and whether a better arrangement could have been made with non-combine firms.

The Deputy-Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is putting that point to me; I would remind him of the long-standing rule on Supplementary Estimates that questions of general policy cannot be raised unless the increase is so large that, in the opinion of the Chair, it covers a new service. The increase with which we are now dealing is a comparatively small one on the original Estimate, which covers the power of the Department to make contracts. The right hon. Gentleman would be quite right in raising this question on a new Estimate.

Mr. Garro Jones

Suppose the Postmaster-General is confronted with an increase in the price of petrol, and one of the firms from whom the Minister is not purchasing petrol offers to supply petrol at a price which does not contain the increase. If the Minister refused to accept the offer and had, as a result, to bring forward a Supplementary Estimate, should we be in order in asking how it came about that he refused that offer? If so, are we not entitled to ask whether he was able to obtain petrol from firms outside the combine and so avoid the necessity of bringing forward this increased expenditure?

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Gentleman has raised a purely hypothetical question.

Mr. Kirkwood

Suppose, as has already happened, that a Post Office sub-contractor did not pay the standard rate of wages, is there any way in which we could raise the matter other than as we have raised it to-night? It is no use our sitting here putting these questions. I want to move that we report Progress unless we get a fair hearing. We are being shut out on every occasion.

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Gentleman appears to be raising what is again a question of major policy. It has been laid down over and over again by my predecessors that such questions can be raised only on a main Estimate. For that reason he is out of order.

Mr. Alexander

What all of us are anxious not to do—and I prefaced my remarks very carefully because we believe that the Post Office is a fine and great Department—I understand, Captain Bourne, that you want to be bound as far as possible by the actual precedents and procedure followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means in Committee, and I am not in any sense objecting to the control which you rightly desire to have over the course of business, but I feel that in this particular case we are dealing with a request to the Committee to authorise a subsidiary sum due to an increase in price which, in the opinion of some hon. Members, could have been avoided if the trouble had been taken to obtain the petrol from firms, outside the combines, which were not charging the increased price, and on that I submit that we are speaking in an entirely salient manner purely on the Supplementary Estimate. I therefore hope you will, out of the goodness of your heart, allow the Postmaster-General to reply to the point which has been made. Before I leave that topic, I ought to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether this sum for petrol has taken any account at all of the decrease in price. He is as well aware as I am that a decrease took place in the price of petrol a week ago, and therefore he will be working on a decreased contract price, I suppose, for at least five or six weeks of the current financial year, and I should like to know whether an allowance has been made for that.

The other point that I want to mention is in connection with Item I (1), on page 29, in connection with salaries for the increasing number of workmen to be used owing to continued telephone development. While I can understand that some of these large items are almost in the nature of capital expenditure, there is very little set off in regard to increased revenue to be earned. While one wants this kind of work to be extended and developed, I think it would be more satisfactory, looking at it from the point of view of a commercial balance sheet, if we could see more provision made for expected increases in revenue earned.

12.14 a.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Sir Walter Womersley)

I would like to reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) straight away. He complains, on this Vote of £900,000, that we ought to be able to estimate more closely at the beginning of the year, but the gross Vote is over £70,000,000, and this is really the penalty of success, that our business has increased to such a great extent, even in excess of our former anticipations. The turnover this year has jumped from about £900,000,000 to £963,000,000, and the right hon. Gentleman, even with his great experience of trading, will realise that that is a very large sum. He asked some questions with regard to petrol. We purchase our petrol, in the usual way with a Government Department, through one central purchasing department. We do not purchase it ourselves, but we get it through this other Department. An agreement was entered into for 1937–38, and there is no doubt about it that we got, through that Government Department, a very good price. Then the right hon. Gentleman asked me a question about anticipated savings and wanted to know how the sum of £287,000 for conveyance of mails by air was arrived at. The saving arises from the fact that certain air mail services which we expected to put in operation this year have been delayed for various reasons that I cannot explain here to-night. There was a saving of £32,000 on certain European services and on the Empire service to Africa and the Indo-Malayan service a saving of £140,000, and on the Atlantic air service which will not be put into operation this year there is a saving of £115,000. It is a very simple matter, and I hope that we shall have these services in operation before very long.

The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. R. J. Taylor) asked about the Fair Wages Clause; I can assure him that both the Postmaster-General and myself keep a very sharp eye on our contractors, to see that they carry out the Clause as sanctioned by this House. We welcome information from hon. Members who may think from time to time that the Fair Wages Clause is not being carried out. Whenever a case arises we deal with it promptly, as we do not want contractors to be getting an undue advantage over the workers or over other contractors. We are very keen about that.

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend apologises to the Minister, but he has had to leave the House.

Sir W. Womersley

He has been here a long time, like ourselves, waiting since eight o'clock to get on with this Vote. I do not wonder that he has had to go away. He wanted to know about the extra payment of wages and salaries in the Stores Department; it is an extra required for the handling of a larger body of stores. Money has been paid out in wages to store-keepers, warehousemen and the workmen needed for handling the stores in and out of stock. He asked me also about the money included in the Vote to cover the expenses of regionalisation. New telephone areas have been set up in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Bristol. At Cambridge a new telephone area will be started by 28th March. I think the hon. Member would have been satisfied with that, had he been present.

Under one of the headings is an item for the refreshment clubs, in which my right hon. and gallant Friend and myself take some little pride. It is a development for the benefit of the staff. The figure is a capital grant for plant, equipment and furniture for providing amenities for the refreshment clubs. We are out to raise the standard not only of the decorations and other amenities but of the meals provided for the staff. We have been very successful so far.

The next question related to uniform clothing. This sum is divided as follows: Higher prices of materials, mainly wool, amounted to £22,000—there has been, it is true, a drop recently in the price of wool—and £20,000 for growth of staff. Then we improved the quality of the shoes and waterproof material which was being supplied, at a cost of £9,000. A sum of £15,000 is accounted for by arrears in deliveries to stock. The hon. Member then referred to accidents. The increase in the number of accidents was due mainly to making greater use of motor vehicles. The fleet of motor vehicles has been considerably increased, and we now have over 16,000 vehicles, travelling much longer distances. Even with the careful drivers who operate these vehicles, accidents occasionally happen, and they involve a certain amount of expense.

The hon. Member asked a question about contracts, and he was a little concerned as to whether we were being imposed upon by what he called the "ring." He asked what had resulted from the investigation which my right hon. Friend had promised would take place. My right hon. Friend set up a Departmental Committee, and did me the honour of inviting me to be chairman of it. The committee has had a number of meetings with the representatives of the contractors, and the negotiations are still proceeding. The present position may be summed up by saying that the Department has been met in a spirit of co-operation by those representing the manufacturers. We have every hope that we shall get a satisfactory agreement with those manufacturers and this will commend itself to hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) asked a question about the salaries of engineers. We had calculated on an increase of 3,500 engineering workmen, but in fact we had to increase the number by 6,000 during the year. We had to take on all those additional men because of the extra work involved by the extended demand for telephone apparatus. We have had to train many of them, because we could not get fully skilled men in the quantity which we required, and we felt that it was the duty of the Department to train good men into skilled workers. As we had the concurrence of the union concerned, there was no difficulty. The salaries and wages of these men and the increased cost of training accounts for some of the additional expenditure. I have often been asked questions about the recruiting of this labour. We get these men through the Employment Exchanges, and we are now getting a few from the training centres set up by the Ministry of Labour for Regular Service men. The total number of engineering workmen is 42,000.

Mr. Kirkwood

Has the Post Office made a point of doing all the work it could itself and not unnecessarily handing it out to sub-contractors?

Sir W. Womersley

I assure the hon. Member that we do all we can. We keep our staff fully employed. All these additional men have been fully occupied all the time. I am sorry to say that on some occasions we have had to work overtime, but we are trying to get over that position. We do not put out one contract more than is absolutely necessary. One hon. Member asked, with regard to the engineering department, whether we were laying in the stocks provided for in this Vote in anticipation of a rise in costs. No. We are getting this material because we require additional engineering stores for the extension of works. We have such a big programme ahead of us that we must build up our stocks, otherwise we shall not be able to carry on with the work. Finally, a question was asked about the Post Office Savings Bank. This is not a new departure, but our requirement is because of the enormous increase in business. The growth in the deposits of the working classes of this country with this particular department of the Post Office amounted to about £48,000,000 last year, and there was a net increase of half a million depositors.

The amount outstanding is a considerable sum indeed, and that shows that the thrifty working people of this country have faith in the Post Office savings bank. They know who is managing it. I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Hillsborough for his complimentary remarks to both the Postmaster-General and myself, and I can assure him that we do indeed carry on this Department in a sound, businesslike way. I hope it will continue to be carried on in that way for many years to come.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £900,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1938, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones.

12.27 a.m.

Mr. Alexander

I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."

I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury may be willing at this stage to allow this Motion to be carried. We have done a considerable amount of work to-day, and the discussion that we have just concluded shows that the Committee will get more and more restive as the hour gets later. I think it would be better to have the remaining Votes that the right hon. Gentleman had hoped to have got to-night put down for a more decent time of day. In doing so, he will not only let us get home to-night, but I think he will get the Votes outstanding with more celerity ultimately.

12.28 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Margesson)

It is very nice for me when I can stand at this Box and agree to a Motion such as that moved by the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander). There are occasions, particularly on Supplementary Estimates, when I have to be firm and hard and when I am called rude names by hon. Members opposite. To-night I find myself in the position of being able to say that the Government are prepared to agree to the Motion, always with this proviso, that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Supplementary Estimates and other financial business must be completed and got through this House by 28th March, for the end of the financial year. The Government are not anxious to ask the Committee to sit unduly late, but on the next occasion when Supplementary Estimates are put down it means that those which have not been secured to-day must be added on top of the work to be done subsequently. I am not making any warning or threat, but the Committee will understand that if we do not finish the Supplementary Estimates to-night, they must be taken on the next occasion on which such business is put down. I agree that the Committee has made substantial progress to-day, and I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee if we do now agree to report Progress and take these Estimates another day, when probably they will pass with greater ease and facility than if we proceeded with them now.

Mr. Alexander

I would like to accept the concession of the right hon. Gentleman in the spirit in which it is given, except to say that while we recognise that the Government must get their financial business through in a certain time, I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman deals with the next day's Supply work he will consult through the usual channels, so as to get the most important Votes put down for the earliest part of the day's discussion.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow.

Committee also report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.