HC Deb 25 January 1949 vol 460 cc759-71

3.48 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Wilfred Paling)

I beg to move, in page 7, line 26, to leave out "may at any time revoke," and to insert: if it appears to him that there are sufficient grounds so to do, may at any time suspend.

The Chairman

Perhaps it would meet the convenience of the Committee if we discussed the three proposed Amendments to this Clause at the same time.

Mr. Paling

That would be convenient to me. These three Amendments relate to the proposed new Schedule. Certain alterations have to be made in Clause 7, and these three Amendments effect the necessary alterations. I am not quite sure whether we can discuss them together with the Schedule.

The Chairman

I am, of course, in the hands of the Committee, but if that is convenient I am agreeable.

Mr. Grimston (Westbury)

It seems to me that it would be convenient to discuss these Amendments and the proposed new Schedule together, because they all hang together.

Mr. Paling

In Committee hon. Members opposite raised the question of the revocation of a licence given to a wireless operator. In the Bill the Postmaster-General has powers to issue certificates of authority to wireless operators, and in certain circumstances it may be necessary to revoke such certificates or to take them away from the wireless operators. It was pointed out that to take such certificates away from an operator was a very serious thing indeed as it affected his livelihood. An Amendment was put down in order to try to deal with it by hon. Members opposite, but it was not well worded and did not achieve the object in view. I then promised to bring in a new Amendment at a later stage. That Amendment is embodied in this new Schedule.

The Amendment proposes to set up an advisory committee of three people—the chairman, a representative of the person concerned and a representative of the employers. In a case like that the Postmaster-General will suspend the certificate for the time being, and will inform the person whose certificate is suspended that he has a right to put his case before this advisory committee. In some cases it may be difficult to let the person know of his right, and we shall have to adopt ways and means of letting him know about this right so that he shall not forfeit it because he does not know about it. The Committee will report to the Postmaster-General. It is then for the Postmaster-General to act on the report or not as he thinks fit. But this safeguard is given to the man that his case will be considered impartially by fully qualified people. I think we have met the desires of the Opposition under this new Schedule.

Mr. Grimston

Before I say anything might I seek your assistance, Major Milner? I have an Amendment down to the Schedule, and I wonder if you can tell me at what stage of our proceedings it would be proper to call it, seeing we are discussing all these Amendments on the Schedule together.

The Chairman

I understood that the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment was going to be raised on the Report stage. If not it will be perfectly in order when we get to the Schedule to put the Amendment then. I will see that that is done.

Mr. Grimston

I understand from that that we shall have to go back on the recommittal again.

As the Postmaster-General has said, this new Schedule and the Amendments meet the point which we put on the Committee stage. There are one or two questions I should like to ask the Postmaster-General before we part from the Schedule. I purposely shall not say anything about my Amendment to it until we come to it later. The Postmaster-General said that there might be certain cases where he would not be able to reach the holder of a licence. That to us seems rather odd. I am not quarrelling with the fact that he is trying to reach people he does not know, but the Post Office must know the people to whom these certificates have been issued. As a matter of interest, we should like to know what sort of case he has in mind.

The other question I should like to put arises on the phrase in paragraph 2— within such time and in such manner as may be specified in the notice. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what sort of time he has in mind for a person to give notice of appeal to a tribunal? That also is a matter of interest, about which I should like to have some information. Otherwise, apart from the point which I shall raise later on the Amendment and which to us is of some substance, this new Schedule appears to be right in the circumstances, and I am obliged to the Postmaster-General for meeting us.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I should like to support my hon. Friend. I did not have the privilege of being on the Committee which dealt with this Bill, and naturally I am not as fully acquainted with it as he is. I feel that taking these three Amendments together places me in a little difficulty if I have to explain to someone in the future on what grounds his licence is revoked and how he may make an appeal against his suspension. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to give us some explanation if he will be kind enough to do so. If anyone comes to me to know if he has sufficient grounds for appeal I shall be able to explain to him, provided the right hon. Gentleman gives me a more detailed explanation now, the exact position, rather than trouble the right hon. Gentleman with letters on this point, though naturally he would give me as courteous a reply as he will now give me in the Committee.

For how long will these suspensions take place? I understand that in all probability they will take place as long as the inquiry takes, which in some cases may be a considerable time. The Committee as a whole would like some further explanation on this subject, because it is rather complicated. I see a look of extreme worry passing over the faces of one or two supporters of the Postmaster-General, and obviously they are as anxious as I am to have a further explanation.

Mr. Paling

With regard to the first question which has been put, some of the people referred to may be deserters from their ships or they may be in China, Japan or anywhere in the four corners of the earth. It might take us a long time to reach such persons to let them know. Time would have to be given accordingly. If the man were in this country the thing could be done in a few days, but because he was away it would take longer. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) asked a question on the first Amendment as to why the licence is revoked. A licence is granted by the Postmaster-General to wireless operators who are doing a very important job. It may be that such a person has deserted his ship. That is rather a serious thing for a man in that position to do, and because of that the Postmaster-General might have to look into the question of continuing the licence or not. There may be a score of reasons for the Postmaster-General to look into the question whether the licence should be continued or not.

Mr. C. Williams

In other words, in future the Post Office will look at anything of this sort with a kindly eye rather than with the idea of suspending the licence, and will give the individual every chance should he suffer hardship under the system. I might add that the right hon. Gentleman is really exercising his personal kindness.

Mr. Paling

I do not think the Postmaster-General would want to revoke a person's certificate merely for the sake of doing so. In any case, the person would have had to do something serious before the step was taken. If the step is taken, the man is given the opportunity of putting his case before the committee.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

The Postmaster-General's last statement fills me with apprehension. These are certificates granted for competence by the Postmaster-General. Does the Postmaster-General now say that he takes away a certificate of competence because a man may have deserted his ship somewhere? If so, that appears to be an unexpected punishment in no way affecting the man's competence. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether that has ever happened or whether this is to be a new method——

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

Is not that essentially a matter which ought to be within the discretion of the Postmaster-General? It is, of course, true that the discretion must be carefully and properly exercised, but ought it not properly to reside there?

Mr. Manningham-Buller

It would be very wrong of a man to desert his ship but that would not be likely to affect his competence as a wireless operator. Why should the right hon. Gentleman usurp a power to punish an individual in this way for an action of that sort for which he will be punished in the ordinary way if he is caught? Does the Postmaster-General really deprive people of certificates of competence, which they acquired as the result of examinations, because they have done something for which they can be punished either under the Merchant Shipping Act or in the courts of this country? The right hon. Gentleman should tell us more about it.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about service on people in China or Japan. I see that the new Schedule provides that the Postmaster-General shall take such steps as appear to him to be reasonable in the circumstances to bring to the notice of the individual, by advertisement or otherwise, the fact of his suspension. What does he propose to do in the instance he has given? Does he intend to advertise in Chinese or Japanese newspapers? It is a farcical illustration and illustrates the undesirability of the Postmaster-General seeking to add to the punishments which a man who deserts may suffer if apprehended, by taking away from him his certificate of competence when his competence as a wireless operator may be in no way affected by his conduct in the other respects. The right hon. Gentleman ought to explain to us in a little greater detail the practice of the Post Office in this matter.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

I cannot think that the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. ManninghamBuller) is serious. This is machinery which is most carefully designed—it is obvious in every line and paragraph—to protect wireless personnel. It gives the Advisory Committee powers of revision and of considering whether the action which the Postmaster-General has taken in the first place is proper or not, and that Advisory Committee and the further machinery which is provided, enable a course to be taken which will both investigate the matters at issue and protect the personnel concerned. It is suggested, and it seemed a strange argument coming from the hon. and learned Member, that the decision which the Postmaster-General makes, in exercising a discretion under this new Clause, should, somehow or other, be nullified or held up pending reconsideration by the Advisory Committee. That cannot be accepted as a serious proposition.

The proper way for these things to be done is for the responsible Minister to look at all the facts judicially and not to come to a decision until he is abundantly satisfied that the withdrawal of the authority is the proper and final thing to do. If the person affected thinks the Postmaster-General is wrong, he puts this machinery into operation and gets such redress as he would in all the circumstances be entitled to. What could be more careful and proper than that? What complaint can the personnel have? What complaint can the Opposition have? I should like the Opposition Front Bench to say what they would do if they were in authority and responsible for this matter and whether they would deviate by one iota from the principle of the machinery under the Schedule.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I suppose the Postmaster-General would consider himself fortunate in having had the assistance of the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) who went into considerable detail. I listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman very carefully but he leaves me, and, I should imagine, other hon. Gentlemen on this side of the Committee, as unconvinced as before about what we may call the indiscretion of the Postmaster-General. The hon. and learned Gentleman was careful to point out at the end that in certain circumstances the position regarding withdrawal of competence certificates might be as the Postmaster-General suggested. His challenge to the Opposition as to what they would do if they were in authority, in no way meets the case. I will go further. I am glad to see the hon. and learned Gentleman assenting.

Mr. Turner-Samuels


Mr. McKie

The hon. and learned Member has completely begged the question. Whatever the hon. and learned Gentleman may say, before we agree to these Amendments we ought to have a little more elucidation of this very important point. It is a point of great substance which has emerged from the right hon. Gentleman's indiscretion—if we may so term it—in explaining the Amendment.

No one on this side of the Committee—I should be loth to suggest anyone on the other side of the Committee either—would willingly be a party to penalising this very excellent class of persons as they may be penalised if the case is as the Postmaster-General has outlined it. I should have thought that we would have had a chorus of disapproval from the Socialist back benches about the point which the right hon. Gentleman made. In particular, I should have thought that my right hon. Friend—if he will allow me to call him that—the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood)—would have had something to say. He would certainly have done so in the old days when he was sitting on these benches. There has not been even a cheep from him or any protest whatsoever from the Socialist benches but merely a lame kind of apologia which the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester felt constrained to make on behalf of his chief because nobody else would come to the rescue.

Nobody can accuse us of trying in any way to exaggerate the importance of what the Postmaster-General said. If we investigated the matter I suppose that most of us would have one or two constituents or friends and relatives who might come under the kind of penalties which the Postmaster-General has suggested. The right hon. Gentleman ought to say something further and endeavour to allay our fears. If he is unable to do so, the Assistant Postmaster-General might be able to say something if not altogether to remove our fears, at any rate to give further enlightenment on a point which ought to be elucidated. The Minister should not merely satisfy the Committee but satisfy the people who may in future be penalised, and their friends and relatives and the public, who will be astonished when they read tomorrow morning the kind of construction the Postmaster-General has put on these Amendments.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I am a little puzzled to see exactly where the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) finds difficulty, in view of certain precedents in connection with at least one other Ministry. In effect, the Postmaster-General through his Department acts as an examining body for a job of great importance to the lives of the people. The analogy is the old time examination for teachers by the Board of Education. The actual qualification of the teacher was a certificate nominally issued by a Minister, and in order to protect the young people who came under the care of an unworthy teacher, it was the practice—which was never challenged by the Opposition when they were in power—to deprive the teacher of his means of livelihood by withholding or cancelling his certificate if good and sufficient reasons were shown.

As I read Subsection (3) of Clause 7 the power is that which must be exercised by any examining body which is also concerned with the welfare of the general public vis-à-vis the work of the people to whom they have issued certificates. I myself, representing schoolmasters, had to appeal on a good many occasions to a colleague of the hon. and learned Member for Daventry when he was President of the Board of Education, but we never disputed his power to take away the teaching right exercised through the certificate. Indeed, it is a normal provision of any examining body which is also a professional body. In this case the profession concerned exercises its powers, and quite rightly, since it is used on His Majesty's ships, in the Merchant Marine, and so on, through a highly regarded certificate which is not only a certificate of competence but is also to a certain degree a certificate of character. In the instance given of the desertion of a ship by an officer, it might easily be adjudged to be a breach of discipline in an officer which could not be condoned, and he might utilise his qualifications to get into another ship. For that reason, since there are analogies in the powers exercised by at least one other Ministry, I fail to see where the difficulty arises.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

Like some of my hon. Friends, I was not on the Committee on this Bill and have only had an opportunity of listening to this discussion, but I join with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) in deploring the attitude which the Postmaster-General has taken up this afternoon. How dare he penalise a man under this Bill for activities or for deficiencies which are outside the purpose of the Bill? If a man commits some offence and goes to, say, China, that is a matter for him and for the courts of that country, but it is not for the Postmaster-General to deprive him of a licence, or to put up a tribunal which has the power of depriving him of a licence originally given for competence in his trade.

If a man does not conform to the regulations laid down in the first six Clauses of this Bill, it is competent for the Postmaster-General to revoke his licence or, as my hon. Friends suggested in the Committee Stage, there should be another safeguard introduced so that a tribunal can express an opinion whether the licence should be revoked, but only for a contravention of the regulations under this Bill, not for some other activity if a man deserts a ship while at sea, the laws of the sea prevail and another authority is involved, but it is not for the Postmaster-General to use the machinery of this Bill to deprive a man of his technical position and his prospects of livelihood.

4.15 p.m.

There may be all sorts of reasons why a man is away from his normal job, either permanently or for a time, and some of those may be good reasons which, if there were time and the man were present, he could prove either to the satisfaction of the Postmaster-General or the tribunal. I think we on this side of the Committee are justified in voting against this provision, if that is indeed the intention of the Postmaster-General, and he owes us a further explanation of the point raised.

Mr. Paling

The question is rather one of a revocation of the authority to operate a wireless set than a revocation of his certificate of competence. Of course great care will be taken in every case before this happens. The number of cases that arise now is small, but they happen, and one has to have regard to the fact that in some of these cases, on ships, the wireless operators are doing an important job in which often the safety of life is concerned. That being so, it is the duty of the Postmaster-General to see that all precautions are taken. If damage or casualties resulted, the Postmaster-General could be blamed because he ought to have done something which he had not done or because a person who was in charge ought not to have been in charge. Then we should be attacked by the Opposition. It is merely from that point of view that we are anxious to safeguard his position.

I agree that it is serious to take away the authority of a man to operate a wireless set, and we have agreed that it is serious by virtue of the fact that we have brought in the new Schedule today giving him the opportunity of appealing to some body other than the Postmaster-General who has the power to revoke his authority. I am rather surprised that hon. Gentlemen opposite should be finding these difficulties now. It may be that the illustration of a deserter was not as good as one could wish, but that is the trouble if one picks out an individual case—it can always be looked at from another point of view. However, it is right for the Postmaster-General to ask for this authority to revoke in certain cases, and also that the man should have the right of appeal to the authority which we propose to set up.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I do not think anyone disputes that the Postmaster-General should have that right and power. Everyone agrees that people holding those authorities occupy responsible positions. This discussion would not have continued at length but for what the right hon. Gentleman said, which has created in my mind a considerable amount of alarm which was not in the least allayed by what the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) said. Either the hon. and learned Gentleman did not hear what I said, or he did not hear what the Postmaster-General said, because these Amendments have been tabled to meet points raised from this side of the Committee. We are not, contrary to what the hon. and learned Gentleman appeared to think, in any way opposed to the creation of this form of appellate tribunal.

The only reason I rose at an earlier stage was because of the alarming statements made by the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the exercise of his power for revoking an authority merely because, perhaps, somebody had deserted his ship. That is piling one punishment on top of another and it may not follow, in the particular circumstances of the case, that a man who is punished for desertion should be further punished by the revocation of this authority. The right hon. Gentleman has not answered me on that or said whether any such authorities have in the past been revoked on that account.

The right hon. Gentleman has really only himself to blame for the course this discussion has taken, as, I think, he himself indicated, by referring to the danger of giving illustrations. But can he give at least this assurance: that no revocation of authority will take place merely because of the commission of an offence of one kind or another unless the nature of that offence clearly reveals unfitness to continue holding that authority.

Mr. Paling

I think that is the whole principle of this matter of revocation, which I tried to make clear in my last statement.

Mr. C. Williams

May I ask the Postmaster-General a question? We had just now a speech from the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) which seemed as though it might have been made from an official brief by the Government. If that is so, why is the hon. and learned Member occupying his present seat? It is rather important that we should know, especially in dealing with a Measure of this nature, whether his pronouncement was one of Government policy or merely something from a back bencher.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

I understand that the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) alleges that I had some official document in front of me. That is absolutely inaccurate.

Mr. Williams

That was not my meaning. The hon. and learned Member seemed to be speaking officially. Was he or was he not? If he was speaking purely as a back bench Member we know where we are, but if he was speaking as a Government Member very much more force should he attached to what he said in the interpretation of the law.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 7, line 27, at end, insert: ' with a view to the revocation thereot, and where he so suspends an authority, the provisions of the Schedule to this Act (Procedure in Relation to Suspension and Revocation of Authorities to Wireless Personnel) shall have effect. Line 28, leave out from "any," to end of line, and insert: authority granted under subsection (2) of this section has ceased to be in force or has been suspended."—[Mr. Paling.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended. stand part of the Bill."

Mr. C. Williams

I wonder whether we might now have an answer from the Government as to what is the official legal position? Is it such as we heard from the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) or as the Postmaster-General gave it? It is only fair that we should know whether a certain speech is of the real intentions of the Government or whether it is only that of an ordinary Member. I hope we can be given an answer about this extraordinary position.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.