§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Grimston)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The House will recollect that during his Budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the time had now arrived when a further contribution to the man-power problem must be asked of the Post Office and that to that end, certain services were being reduced and the charges on others were being increased.
1540 Particulars of the increase of charges on telegrams were embodied in the financial statement which was issued with the Budget, and my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General dealt with them at some length during a subsequent Budget Debate. The object of this Bill is to give effect to these increases, since Parliament in its wisdom has decided that it must lay down a maximum charge which the Postmaster-General can charge for telegrams. The present proposal increases the charges beyond the maximum laid down by the 1920 Act, and hence the reason why we have to come to the House and ask for legislation.
In the Budget Debate the Postmaster-General referred to the 20 per cent, increase which had taken place in the volume of telegraph traffic since the war. Several hon. Members raised the question whether the increase was due almost entirely to Service telegrams of various sorts and they asked whether figures could be produced. I have had some figures got out. They show that the total increase in the volume of telegraph traffic is now of the order of 11,250,000 telegrams a year. Of these, 3,500,000 represent the increase in what I may call O.H.M.S. telegrams, and the balance is the increase in ordinary telegrams. Under 0.H.M.S. telegrams would come casualty and other Service telegrams, and under the ordinary telegrams would come those which are sent by Servicemen going on leave. It will be seen that there is a field for economy in both these directions. We are circularising the other Departments with regard to O.H.M.S. telegrams, stressing the necessity of reducing them as far as possible consistent with necessity. As far as the public are concerned, we are doing what we can by way of propaganda. Hon. Members will no doubt have seen the "Telegraph less signs on the red Post Office mail vans, and the increased charges are designed purely as a deterrent and not in the interests of the Revenue.
The Bill is a simple one. Clause permits the maximum rate of is. for nine words whereas at present we cannot charge more than is. for the first 12 words or less. Clause 2 ensures that special charges, such as those for greetings telegrams, which for the moment are suspended, may be charged by the Postmaster-General, and Clause 3 extends 1541 the Act to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man and also repeals certain provisions of the Act of 1920 which will cease to be operative. I wish to repeat that the Post Office regrets having to impose these increased charges. We realise that in these days of difficult travelling people want to communicate more with one another by other means, but the growth to which I have referred must be checked. If it is not checked we shall not be able to carry on efficiently the essential traffic which must go on in the interests of the war effort. I think the House will be surprised to know, as I was surprised to learn, that even since the abolition of greetings telegrams, the volume of telegrams of greeting, that is to say "Many happy returns" and "Congratulations," and so on, is still greater than all the O.H.M.S. telegrams put together, and we really must do all we can to discourage the unnecessary use of the telegraph at the present time. I feel sure the House and the country will understand and will co-operate in this effort.
§ Mr. Brooke (Lewisham, West)
I am grateful for the explanation and the additional facts which the Assistant Postmaster-General has given in introducing this Bill, and I do not wish to stand in the way of the Government getting it, but. I should like to show that hon. Members do take an interest even in small Bills like this, and in particular I would draw attention to what strikes me as a curiosity. Before we can raise telegraph charges we have to pass a Bill through all its stages in both Houses, but the Postmaster-General has power to do anything he likes now about raising the telephone or postal charges without coming to Parliament. So far as I am aware, up to the end of the last war he was governed by Statute as to the maximum charges he could make for telegrams, for inland newspapers, for printed packets, and for inland postcards. In an Act of 192o he got the House to agree to remove the statutory maximum from inland postcards and printed packets, though it was retained for telegrams and for newspapers. In the Bill we passed in the first year of the war, in 1940, we consented to the removal of this statutory maximum from newspapers but again retained it for telegrams, and now, when in order to diminish the traffic the Government wish to raise the charges for tele- 1542 grams, they have to come to the House for permission.
It seems to me that Parliament should make up its mind definitely one way or the other as regards all these services. If it is desirable that one of them, the telegraph service, should be governed by statutory maximum charges, surely it is equally desirable that much more widely used services, the postal service and the telephone service, should be similarly governed. If, on the other hand, Parliament has made up its mind that it is no longer necessary to control the action of the Postmaster-General in the case of the postal and telephone services, I very much doubt whether there can be any reason for continuing to exercise this control over him in the matter of telegraph charges. I know that a subject exercising the mind of many Members of Parliament is whether we are giving the Government too free a hand in making alterations without coming to the House, but here is a case where the House itself has got itself into an anomalous position, and one day I trust the House will clear up that position. For myself, I believe that pressure on Parliamentary time is going to become greater and greater as the years go on, and if it is in fact the case that Parliament does not wish to exercise direct control over postal and telephone charges, I would suggest that it should relax that control over maximum telegraph charges and make it no longer necessary for the Postmaster-General to have to come to the House in future whenever he wishes to alter those charges.
It always gives me some anxiety when I see in a Bill reference to Acts as far back as 1863. In Clause 2, it is stated that this Act and the Telegraph Acts, 1863 to 1940, may be cited as the Telegraph Acts, 1863 to 1943. There have been great improvements in the telegraph service and in arrangements generally over a period of So years, and if hon. Members will look back at the 1863 Act they will find references to carriages and turnpikes and foreign plantations and things of that kind and—an interesting point—a statutory definition of what a telegraph post is. If my suggestions have made any impression on the House, I hope that at some future date the Postmaster-General may bring forward a Bill consolidating the Telegraph Acts and making it unnecessary for us in 1543 this House to have to deal with these little isolated Bills in future.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.—[Mr. Boulton.]