§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Ness Edwards)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I hope that if my remarks are brief I shall not be regarded as being discourteous to the House. This is the first telephone Bill in the history of Parliament. It is astonishing that we have this vast business organisation and have never before had a Bill the purpose of which is to provide for the running of that vast undertaking.
I should like to divide my remarks into two parts. In the first part, I wish to deal with the need for and the background of the Bill, and, in the second part, briefly to describe the Bill itself. To use a phrase which has had some currency during the last half-hour, the Bill is really consequential on my examination last autumn of the powers of the Postmaster-General in relation to the charges made for various services provided by the telephone service.
I found that all the powers I had were derived from the Telephone Acts, 1863 to 1878 and 1885. I had these powers as a consequence of a court decision that a telephone message was also a telegraph message, and it is upon that extremely slender basis that the telephone system has been running ever since. This has given rise to the limitations of the things which the Postmaster-General can do over the years since there has been a Postmaster-General.
Nearly every one of them has found these limitations an obstacle to the things which he felt he ought to be able to do and, on one occasion, the Postmaster-General—one of my Conservative predecessors—had to provide in regulations to do certain things in relation to contracts and, having got the regulations through the House, was afraid to operate them in case a private citizen took him up in court on the grounds that they were ultra vires. That was the position.
I found, for instance, that telephone messages, conforming to the legal view that they were telegraph messages, ought to be paid for not in cash but in stamps. I am sure that the House will realise that it was like trying to run a modern railway 602 system with the powers of a canal company. That has been the position up to today. I am sure that the machinery that the Postmaster-General now has to operate was never designed for the telephone service. At the time the machinery was designed, there was no telephone service in existence. I am sure that the Parliaments of the 1880's had no idea that what they did in relation to a small telegraph service would have to provide for the needs of a telephone service so vast in size as that which we are running today.
I found, for instance, that I could change every telephone charge except the rental charge. I could vary them all by placing upon the Table of the House an instrument which would not be debatable because the House has no control at all over any charge which I might care to impose for any of the services—except the rental. Even with regard to the rental the House has no authority, except the general one of being able to move a reduction of the Postmaster-General's salary. The authority for the rental charge rests with the Postmaster-General, in his relationship with the individual subscriber in that subscriber's contract. One of the terms of the contract is that I cannot change the rental charge unless I terminate the contract by giving the proper notice.
The subscriber can only get a telephone into his premises upon the rental fixed by the Postmaster-General. The contract is freely entered into, but in no sense is the rental charge the result of an agreement between the subscriber and the Postmaster-General's representative. The contract confers a legal right to the possession of the telephone, and states what the subscriber has to pay for possessing it. The conditions and the costs are specified outside the terms of the contract and are completely outside the control of the subscriber.
That is an entirely anomalous position. The contract specifies that it should be terminated by three months' notice, although since 1934 the new subscribers have been put on to a month's notice. The contract does not set out the financial relationship between the Postmaster-General and the subscriber for the use of the telephone. A telephone is not of much use as an ornament. It is wanted for purposes of communication. As things 603 stand, rentals cannot be raised without terminating the contract. This may have been a tolerable position in the old days. This is one of the matters which my predecessors in this office have found extremely embarrassing as limiting their allocation of the costs of the service equitably over all sections of the service.
In 1921, the last time when these contracts were changed, we had in this country merely 500,000 contracts. Today, we have more than five million contracts. It would cost us some £800,000, I am advised, to terminate contracts and replace them by new contracts, and it would take about a year to do. As time goes on, and as the growth of the telephone system increases, we shall find ourselves in the position that rentals will be either artificially low or artificially high, according to the circumstances, because the cost of changing them in the contract would become in one case greater than the amount of the increased charge, or, in the other case, greater than the savings which we should like to pass on to the subscribers.
As the telephone service extends, the cost of facing this problem becomes even greater. The more contracts there are, the more costly will it be to vary them. If I had the same flexibility with regard to the rental charge as I have with regard to the other charges, it may well have been that the cost of the recent increases would have been spread in a different, and what I would consider to be a more equitable, manner. Certain types of service in the telephone system are paying, therefore, a little more than they would have paid had I been free to deal with the rental position.
Let me sum up. Parliament has no direct control at all over the terms of the subscriber's contract or over the terms on which subscribers use their telephones. I am seeking, in the Bill, to bring all these matters under a form of Parliamentary control by making all the charges the subject of regulations, giving the Postmaster-General that flexibility which will enable him to spread the costs of the service equitably over all sections of the service. To do this we must discharge our liability under the contracts by giving individual subscribers the appropriate notice in the appropriate form to terminate the contracts. The sanctity and the 604 terms of the contracts are preserved by this proposal. By the terms of the contract the subscriber must have notice. Under the proposals in the Bill I intend to give the subscribers notice in accordance with the terms of their contracts, and to bring them under these regulations.
This matter has been considered three times before in this House. It was considered in 1949, when it was proposed to terminate the contracts by legislative action. On all sides of the House it was felt that that was entirely wrong and that if the State could not keep its contracts with the citizen that would be a bad example to everybody else. Therefore, the decision was taken to drop that proposal. The only other occasion on which the contract was interfered with was during the war and then it was by legislation. The rental charge was raised by 15 per cent. by legislation and not by terminating contracts. It was not done on an individual basis at all. Legislation overruled the contract which the citizen had with the Postmaster-General.
The third occasion on which there was an attempt to interfere with the contracts was that to which I have already referred, when regulations were laid before the House and were approved. That was done by a Conservative Postmaster-General, in 1936. One of the provisions of those regulations was that the telephone rental charge should be increased. Because there was a fear that the private citizen would take the Postmaster-General to court if he did that, the regulations were never operated. What I am proposing is that there shall be termination of contracts by the service on each subscriber of a notice to terminate his contract in accordance with the terms of the contract.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
May I ask the hon. Gentleman a question? I am very interested in what he has said about his intentions. Can he tell me what is the provision in the Bill which safeguards existing contracts from being interfered with by regulations made by him?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
There is no declaration about that in the Bill. It is thought 605 that I should not require to take power to do something for which I already have the power and which I intend to do.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I must have put my question with insufficient lucidity. Is there anything in the Bill which prevents the right hon. Gentleman from interfering with existing contracts?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Authorises. I am prevented by law from interfering with contracts. If I interfered with a contract the subscriber would have the right to take me to court. I am not seeking any power to interfere with the contract. When we come to discuss the transitional provisions, on the Committee stage, we can thrash this matter out further, but I am satisfied that there is nothing in the Bill which would authorise me to interfere with the contracts. If hon. Members on either side of the House can point to an objectionable feature of that sort, I shall listen to what they have to say with complete sympathy and very great readiness to remedy the complaint.
I propose, after the passing of the Bill, to serve subscribers with notice to terminate their contracts and this will be accompanied by an explanatory letter indicating that future service will be on the basis of the regulations. Regulations will be laid before the House embodying the present telephone charges, including rentals. Any future variation of these charges will be required to be made by further regulations under the control of Parliament. I hope to bring in the regulations after the House resumes at the end of the Summer Recess.
I agree that this is a costly way of doing a tidying up job and obtaining the proper basis for the exercise of the powers of the Postmaster-General, but I take the view—I am sure the House will be with me in this—that Parliament, at least in peace-time, should not seek to legislate away the rights that are enshrined in contracts with individual citizens and that those contracts should only be terminated in the manner provided for in the contracts.
I should add that the Bill gives Parliament a power over Post Office charges 606 that it has never had before. In regard to a business of this magnitude, I should regard Parliament as being the proper watchdog for the nation. It will be seen that I am providing for this great national service a degree of Parliamentary accountability which is exceptional, and I am sure the House will appreciate that there has been an intention on my part not to take away from Parliament any powers which it has but rather to give to Parliament greater powers over the Post Office and to put the matter on a proper basis in a proper telephone Bill.
Clause 1 provides the general power for the Postmaster-General to make regulations governing the use of the telephone service. Clause 1 (1) deals with the type of service. Subsection (2) gives me the power to make regulations to fix the charges for different types of services. Subsection (3) subjects the regulations to the negative resolution procedure.
Clause 2 (1) makes it clear that the Postmaster-General can enter into agreement for the provision of a telephone service in exceptional circumstances. Various types of services have to be supplied to Press agencies, and so on. Subsection (2) enables regulations to be made to deal with the transitional arrangements so that there shall be no interference between the termination of the contract and the coming into operation of the regulations basis. Subsection (3) preserves the freedom under the present contractual system of the Postmaster-General to provide a service or not in a certain case.
I should like to give a classic example of that. A firm went bankrupt owing the Post Office a sum of money. Certain persons in the company re-established themselves, and I told them, "You will not get a telephone service unless you pay the last bill." That is the sort of thing for which I seek these powers. Clause 2 (4) preserves Section 2 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, from which is derived the existing powers of the Postmaster-General to make regulations about telegraphy and telegraphs.
Clause 3 repeals Sections 17 and 18 of the Telegraph Act, 1868, which calls upon me to see that all telephone calls are paid in stamps and not in cash and prevents me from giving credit for even three months to the telephone subscriber. 607 Those Sections are obsolete and obviously have no application to the modern telephone system.
The Bill, in short, gives powers to the Postmaster-General to run this vast enterprise with an instrument conceived for the purpose. It is quite wrong that we should have to rely upon the archaic provisions of 1880 to run the vast business of 1951. The Bill provides a full degree of Parliamentary accountability. There are, no doubt, a number of points which hon. Members will want to clear up in Committee, but I hope that the House will realise that the Bill is intended to do a tidying up job. It attempts to put the operation of the telephone system on a business-like basis and at the same time gives the House that degree of accountability which is possible in respect of a business of this sort.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Mr. R. V. Grimston (Westbury)
Listening to the Postmaster-General describing all the inhibitions which he and his predecessors have suffered, I began to wonder how it was that the telephone service ever grew up without the Bill; but, when one strips off all the verbiage and so on, what it really amounts to is that the Bill is necessary the more conveniently to raise telephone charges.
The Explanatory Memorandum says:The object of this Bill is to provide improved machinery for the conduct of the telephone service.It goes on:The basic change proposed to be made … is the provision of equipment and apparatus under a system of statutory regulations … in order to simplify and cheapen the procedure whenever a change in rentals and other charges becomes necessary. The transition to the new system will be effected by terminating the 5,000,000 odd existing contracts by … offering the subscribers … continued service under the regulations …What pictures that conjures up of pleasant talks by telephone subscribers under "continued service," but the cat is let out of the bag by the reference to what happened in 1949 and to what the Postmaster-General said last April. So that in spite of all the fine phrases in the Explanatory Memorandum, this is a Bill to enable the Postmaster-General to increase charges by improved machinery, because that is what he wants to do at this moment. If he did not want to do 608 it at this moment, I believe the telephone service could go on expanding as it has done under existing machinery.
As the Postmaster-General said, it is a matter of some importance to take away individual contracts and replace them by a set of regulations wielded by the Postmaster-General in charge of a monopoly. It is a serious matter which needs to be examined. I agree that right back to the last century we have had telegraph charges, postal charges and telephone charges, except rentals, under regulations which cannot be prayed against. In so far as this Bill brings a section not under the immediate purview of this House within its purview, it is good. However, we must not forget the fact that the Postmaster-General has a complete monopoly and that he is now seeking power by regulations to lay down the terms, conditions and charges under which he shall give a telephone service.
We shall want to know something of what the Postmaster-General intends with regard to these regulations, but first I want to say something about existing contracts. In one part of his speech he said it would take a year to wind up the existing contracts.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
No, I said it would take a year to negotiate and replace, but to cancel or terminate and not replace would take a much shorter time.
§ Mr. Grimston
I appreciate that, but there are some contracts which go for a longer period. I am not speaking of the ordinary subscriber's contract, of which I have a copy here. We want to be certain that contracts will not be abrogated by the powers which the Post master-General is taking under this Bill. There is nothing in it which I can see that gives such a safeguard. As far as I can see, it is completely open, and the Postmaster-General would be able to introduce such a regulation—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Grimston
We will examine it in Committee because a safeguard of that sort should be written into the Bill, if only for the sake of principle. The same consideration applies to some extent to the saving Clause, Clause 2 (1), where the Postmaster-General reserves to himself the power in certain cases to give a service under contract instead of under 609 regulation. There should be some provision that where a contract of that kind is so given, the Postmaster-General cannot abrogate it subsequently by regulation. That is the same point as the one with regard to existing contracts.
I do not propose to talk about the call charge side of it now, but to confine my remarks to the rentals. Clause 1 (1, b) provides for fixing, or providing for fixing, charges in respect of the rentals. By way of introduction to the point I want to make, may I say that when a person or firm acquires a telephone, that person or firm does not want to take on an unknown liability as regards rental. Particularly in the case of a firm, people do not want to take on a liability on a rental basis which may be changed almost at a moment's notice.
Some provision of a contractual nature will have to be made in the regulations so that the Postmaster-General consents to supply a telephone on a rental basis which shall not be altered without some period of notice. That consideration does not apply in the same way to call charges because, if they are increased, the subscriber can say, "I must cut down my calls in order to reduce my liability."
Here I want to digress to say something about the shared line. I was an advocate of it, particularly during the war, in order to give service to as many people as possible. However it is by no means an ideal system and I see that a new technique is being adopted in this regard. During the war, when a subscriber wanted a telephone we used to try to get a shared line on a voluntary basis, but I see that all new contracts now are only being issued on the condition that the subscriber is prepared to share his line with somebody else. He will get an exclusive line to start with only if he agrees to share it later should the Postmaster-General desire that.
I am not quarrelling with the system at the present time, when we want to give service to as many people as possible, but I want to know if this system of a shared line is to be regarded as a permanent feature of the service or only as a stopgap. People who have enjoyed the exclusive use of a telephone line for many years, and then move house, look upon themselves as old customers of the Post Office who ought to be looked after. They find, however, that they are treated as 610 new subscribers and there is a feeling of resentment. In this matter the Postmaster-General should try to do something for what I call his old customers. It is not a big point, but it is one of satisfying old customers.
I should be glad to hear what progress is being made with secrecy on shared lines. From complaints that reach me I find that the chief one is the lack of secrecy. That complaint comes particularly from professional people who transact some of their business from home. Incidentally, I can well imagine that the way some ladies use the telephone would drive anyone who shared a line with them into a lunatic asylum. However, that is all good business for the Post Office.
Behind the introduction of this Bill is there any intention of altering the structure of telephone charges? From one or two remarks made by the Postmaster-General I have been wondering whether he has anything in mind in that regard. I can think of many ways in which it could be done, not all of them advantageous. I should like to know something about that, because, of course, under the Bill he will have complete power to alter the structure of telephone charges.
In this connection the House should always remember that before the war it was a buyers' market for telephones. The Post Office had to go out to sell the telephone, and could only do so on terms and conditions which would attract the potential consumer. Of course, the position is now entirely reversed and it is completely a sellers' market, and it is likely to be so for some time. That is all the more reason why we have to look carefully at the terms and conditions which can be imposed by an absolute monopoly, particularly bearing in mind that there is nothing with regard to the telephone price structure which is analogous to the Railway Rates Tribunal or anything of that sort. The Postmaster-General is the complete arbiter, and there is no statutory machinery to which he has to go where the public or business or any other interests are brought into consultation before he comes down with the charges which he proposes to make.
That brings me to Clause 1 (3), which provides for the negative procedure for the regulations. We think that the negative procedure by Prayer is not good enough for these regulations. I do not 611 propose to go over all the arguments about Prayers—we have had a good deal of experience of them in recent weeks—but there is no doubt that in a matter of this sort, which can affect the business community and many private individuals, these regulations should come up, particularly where charges structures may be involved, by some sort of affirmative procedure and, if possible, some sort of procedure where amendment might be made. That, however, is a Committee point, but I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we feel strongly about it, for the reasons I have stated. We shall certainly want to look into the matter very carefully, when the Bill reaches the Committee stage.
I return for a moment to the subject of user of the telephone by Government Departments. It is estimated that the amount—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman will see in a moment how this comes in. The cost of the use of the telephone by Government Departments this year is about £12 million. As the Minister knows, we take the view that the resumption of cash payments by the various Government Departments would lead to economies which would have two results. It would lead to economy of the use of the telephone by Government Departments, which in itself is a desirable thing, and it would also free a certain amount of apparatus for the Postmaster-General to be able to meet more of the back demand which he has to catch up.
The introduction of this new system and the introduction of the regulations would make a very good moment at which to change over the system and, under the regulations, to make Government Departments pay for these services. The right hon. Gentleman has a very good opportunity of returning to the old practice, which I know in his heart of hearts he knows is the right one. It is a step which he will have to take any way if he is to put the Post Office on the footing on which, in recent speeches, he said he hoped to put it. I commend to him the idea that when introducing these regulations he should put the other Government Departments under them and along with the rest. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will seriously consider this suggestion.
The Bill has been hailed as a sort of "subscribers' charter," but I must for a 612 moment look at Clause 2 (3) in conjunction with the naive Explanatory Memorandum. The Explanatory Memorandum starts with these words:The object of this Bill is to provide improved machinery for the conduct of the telephone service.Clause 2 (3), however, tells us that:Nothing in the foregoing section shall be construed as implying that the Postmaster-General is under any obligation to provide equipment or apparatus for the purpose of affording means of telephonic communication.The only thing one can say about that is that one of the methods of providing improved machinery seems to be to provide none at all. The Postmaster-General mentioned some safeguard for which this provision was included in the Bill, but I think that he might find a happier way of expressing the protection which he wants than by putting down a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland feature between the Explanatory Memorandum and the Clause.
This can be described as a machinery Bill. It raises an important principle with regard to contracts but we believe that if the Bill is drafted aright, this can be taken care of. In our opinion, it wants a little re-designing, and I recommend my hon. Friends to let the Bill upstairs, not for the purpose of, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wood ford (Mr. Churchill) once said, "wringing its dirty neck"—
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)
He did not use that phrase. He used a more forceful expletive.
§ Mr. Grimston
—but in order to see if we can fashion it into something which bears more resemblance to the declared object in the Explanatory Memorandum.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
Some hon. Members, at any rate, will recall the fact that one of the infantry training memoranda issued some years ago by the Secretary of State for War recommended a "state of suspicious alertness." That, I think, is the right attitude from which hon. Members ought to consider this proposal, and my experience of the Postmaster-General is that he is at his most dangerous when, as this evening, he appears to be at his most reasonable.
613 I should like to begin by dealing with the matter on which the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to allow me to put two questions during his speech: first, the position of existing contracts. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman has given an assurance that whatever the powers which he may be given under the Bill may be—and I will say a word about them in a moment—he does not intend to exercise them, or any of them, to interfere with existing contracts; that he proposes to terminate them only subject to the conditions contained in them for termination.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated assent.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am glad to see that that vertical motion of the right hon. Gentleman's head indicates assent to what I have just said. I say that because it is rather important to get it on the record.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether he is not taking the power to terminate them even though he said that he does not want that power. If the right hon. Gentleman would look at the Bill, and in particular at the provisions of Clause 1 (1, a), he will see that a very wide power is taken to make regulations for determining the terms and conditions on which telephone apparatus may be obtained and used. It seems to me at least possible—I do not put it higher than that—that that power could include the power to determine existing contracts under which telephone service is given.
It is desirable, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's assurance, that there should be no doubt about the matter at all, and I hope that when we come to the next stage of the Bill the right hon. Gentleman may be prepared to consider the insertion of some provision for making it quite clear that no such power is given. While, of course, I accept his assurance as binding upon him, he would himself appreciate that Postmasters-General, although agreeable, are not always immortal, and that it is possible that some day some other person may sit in his position who would, perhaps, be more effectively bound by a statutory inhibition than by a ministerial undertaking. If the right hon. Gentleman does not want to take the power, it seems quite wrong that, perhaps inadvertently, he should help himself to it.
The Explanatory Memorandum has already called forth comments from my 614 hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston) and I must say that on reading it I detected in whoever drafted it a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour. I think that is shown by the bland way in which these words are used:The basic change proposed to be made under the Bill is the provision of equipment and apparatus under a system of statutory regulations instead of under the system of contracts, in order to simplify and cheapen the procedure whenever a change in rentals and other charges now fixed contractually becomes necessary.I think that whoever drafted that must have had his official tongue wedged a little in his official cheek because the charming idea that one should effect administrative economy when one makes changes is completely divorced from the idea that the economy should be diverted to the subscriber and I do not suppose the right hon. Gentleman will say that this Bill is to facilitate a reduction of telephone charges. It is quite clearly to facilitate their increase. There is a delightful sense of humour in the Explanatory Memorandum.
Before we give the right hon. Gentleman power with greater speed and economy to increase telephone charges we are entitled to know what are his intentions. After all, a facilitating power has to be considered in the light of the intentions of a person asking for it and I think the right hon. Gentleman owes it to the House and to the country to tell us what are his intentions about telephone charges if and when he gets the Bill. He did not deal with the matter in his opening speech, but I understand that the Assistant Postmaster-General is to reply and perhaps he would be good enough to deal with that aspect of the matter.
Turning again to the terms of the Explanatory Memorandum it seems to me that the major object of this Bill perfectly clearly set forth in that Memorandum is of a highly retrograde kind. We used to say that progress had consisted in proceeding from status to contract. Now, apparently, progress consists in proceeding from contract to Statutory Instrument, and I am bound to say that, from a broad social point of view, that seems a highly retrograde measure.
After all, the right hon. Gentleman himself referred quite properly to the great undertaking over which he presides 615 as being a great commercial undertaking. I agree, but most great commercial undertakings regulate their transactions with the persons with whom they do business by contracts, not by Statutory Instruments. The more the right hon. Gentleman stresses, as he has this afternoon and on other occasions, the commercial character of the Post Office, the more it seems to me he weakens the case for abandoning in this respect the system of contract and going over to a Governmental system of Statutory Instruments.
There is the disadvantage that, if the right hon. Gentleman makes a contract and breaks it the person who suffers from that can go to a court of law, but if the right hon. Gentleman make a Statutory Instrument and does not comply with it, it depends very much on the terms of that Statutory Instrument whether the other person has any recourse to any independent arbitrament at all. It seems to me from a broad point of view that, however convenient it is for the Post Office to abandon, as far as telephone rentals are concerned, the system of contract, it is a retrograde step.
I fully appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman says it would be somewhat inconsistent to have part of his charges dealt with under a system of contract and part under administrative arrangement. That is a very valid point, but it does not follow from that that it is right to abandon the contractual side and assimilate that part to the other side of this business. It is at least equally open to argument that the right thing would be to put all of them on a contractual basis. Therefore, I do not put very much weight on what the right hon. Gentleman says about the desirability of having all this procedure on the same basis.
The vital thing, of course, is these regulations which the right hon. Gentleman is taking power to make. I notice that he did say that they provide for Parliamentary control to an exceptional extent. With great respect, they do nothing of the sort. They introduce solely that negative procedure which is one of the lower forms of Parliamentary control over delegated legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury said, on behalf of those who sit on these benches, that he feels that negative procedure gives insufficient Parliamentary control and I will say a word 616 or two in support of my hon. Friend's views.
In the first place, as recent statements by the right hon. Gentleman himself really confirm, Post Office charges and their increase are really a form of taxation. In view of the relations of the Post Office and the Treasury, they are one of the alternative means of raising money for the Government. They are really a form of taxation and, if they are a form of taxation, surely that taxation should not be imposed without previous assent being obtained from this House. It therefore seems to me that the negative procedure is quite wrong. My view of the true nature of these charges is, I think, supported by the fact that if hon. Members look at the back of the Bill they will see that the right hon. Gentleman is not only supported by his hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General, but by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
Then there is the practical aspect. The perennial disadvantage of the negative procedure is that this House can only come into the picture when action has already been taken. In this case the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly free to introduce his regulations and impose new charges in the Recess and this House may come back to find them in effect. If an hon. Member seeks to move to annul the regulations, he will always be met by the answer that the whole system would be thrown into utter confusion if a scale of charges already in effect were annulled by the action of this House.
That would be a very practical disadvantage, but it illustrates the disadvantages of the procedure. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees or disagrees, but to my mind this is both a form of taxation and an arrangement which cannot be upset without grave inconvenience. Therefore, the proper course would be to introduce that form of the affirmative procedure under which the Measure does not come into effect until it has been approved by the vote of both Houses of Parliament. I hope that in the later stages the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to consider a proposal on those lines.
If a further argument is needed, I would call this in aid. This is a matter affecting the economy of the country and the financial position of millions of telephone subscribers. It is surely entitled to at 617 least the same degree of Parliamentary control and Parliamentary respect as is given on every occasion when any local authority in this country desires to have its cinemas open on a Sunday. As hon. Members will recall, when the smallest and least significant district in these islands decides to open the smallest and least significant cinema on a Sunday afternoon, it is necessary for a Minister of the Crown to stand at the Despatch Box and move a Motion. If that is the right procedure for that case, surely it is the right procedure in a matter of this magnitude and importance.
I am very much concerned also as to the width of the power given to make these regulations and I should be grateful if the Assistant Postmaster-General could do something to relieve the apprehensions which I think many of us who have studied this Bill feel on the matter. In the first place, I would draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to Clause 1 (1, a). That provides that regulations may be madefor determining, or providing for determining, the terms and conditions on which telephone calls … may be made …What I am concerned with is the significance of "or providing for determining." If the regulations determine the conditions then the conditions and charges are in the regulations and are already subject to the negative procedure. But if the regulations provide only "for determining" I take it that means that the regulations will themselves involve some sub-delegation to somebody else to determine the conditions. I hope that I have made the point clear.
The disadvantage of that is that even the degree of Parliamentary control given by this Bill is thereby excluded because it is only the regulations and not the exercise of the power delegated under the regulations which is subject to any Parliamentary control. We have seen in other cases how delegated legislation has produced children and grandchildren; that is to say, power twice delegated, and in the process of that double delegation twice insulated from even the formalities of Parliamentary control. I am anxious that we should avoid any such abuse of the system of delegated legislation in this case. I should be grateful if the Assistant Postmaster-General would deal with that issue when he replies.
618 Another provision of the Bill which alarms me a little is that contained in Clause 1 (2). Provision is there made for the regulations providingfor the determination of questions which may arise in giving effect to the regulations …I take that to mean that regulations can contain power to deny access to the courts of law to a citizen who is aggrieved by the Postmaster-General's action in accordance with the regulation, and can provide perhaps for some administrative tribunal to be set up instead of there being access to the courts of law for the settlement of any dispute. Power is clearly taken there and it seems to me utterly wrong that the right hon. Gentleman should take power not only to regulate by his regulations all the contractual arrangements, charges, etc., in connection with the telephone service but to reserve for himself or for some tribunal set up by him the settlement of disputes when some ordinary citizen comes into conflict with him in connection with his regulations.
Although I regret to say that there are precedents for it, that would seem to me to be wholly regrettable and to be particularly regrettable in this case, where there is being taken away the contractual system under which the aggrieved party would have recourse to the courts of law. It would seem to me to be the duty of this House to secure that unless good cause to the contrary is shown, subjects who may come into dispute with Ministers of the Crown are not denied access to the King's courts for the settlement of those disputes. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General may be able also to deal with that issue.
Although, as the right hon. Gentleman said, some of the points we have raised are in a broad sense Committee points, they are points of considerable materiality to the Bill as a whole: that is to say, unless a satisfactory solution of the difficulties which arise in connection with them can be arrived at, the Bill as a whole falls. Therefore, although they may be Committee points they really go to the merits of the Bill. Also, it is possibly of some convenience to the right hon. Gentleman that one or two of the points which it may be necessary to raise in Committee should be drawn to his attention at this stage so that he may have the chance of considering them with his advisers and of perhaps being in a better 619 position to come to some agreement in dealing with them.
To sum up, this Bill contains much as to which I entertain grave doubts. The Bill seems to take excessive powers; it seems to arm the Postmaster-General with far greater powers than are necessary. Its true purpose, that is to say, the extent of the increase in charges which it is designed to facilitate, is unknown. From a broad point of view it is somewhat retrograde in eliminating the element of contract in the dealings of the Post Office. I end as I began by suggesting to hon. Members that a mood of suspicious alertness can properly follow the later stages of this Bill.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)
I wish to address myself to the matter of the charges, or rather lack of charges, that are laid upon Government Departments. To give a personal instance, I was to visit my constituency in Leeds a few weeks ago and wished to go to one of the regional offices of one of the Ministries. I asked the Minister responsible to advise them that I would be there and would phone them on arrival to indicate the time that suited my convenience in order to see whether it was mutually agreeable.
I had given 10 days' notice of this intention and it seemed to me that there was no difficulty; but when I phoned the regional office of the Ministry and said that I intended to come and asked what was a suitable time for them to receive me, they said, "We received two telephone calls from London yesterday reminding us of your intention to pay us a visit." That kind of thing arises because there is no charge and no check. Anyone who has been the chairman of a finance committee of a public corporation or who has been concerned with internal audit organisation knows that it is the lazy, easy and agreeable way of doing that sort of thing.
If we are to cut down the enormous waiting list of people who desire telephone facilities, we must stop people from using the facilities in the way I have described. I ask my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and the Postmaster-General not to think that this is a carping criticism that might come from the other side of the Chamber. It 620 is one of those sort of things which we ought to think should be done in the interests of efficient and economical public administration.
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hay (Henley)
After all the alarms and excursions that we have had during the last 14 days the House has been remarkably placid and quiet this evening. [An HON. MEMBER: "Exhausted."] I will not say exhausted. We on this side of the House are as resilient in spirit and as ebullient physically as ever, though we are surprised to see that so many hon. Members opposite have not found their way to their beds.
This Bill is one which I confess seemed to me, when I first say it, to be taking a very grave step indeed. I admit at once that my legal instinct was against the idea of the Executive, by regulation, bringing to an end existing contracts which had been made with private individuals. That was an instinct which was a good one to have. I am very glad that when the Postmaster-General addressed the House earlier this evening he pointed out that it was highly undesirable that any Government Department should have contractual obligations with citizens and suddenly bring them to an end without some kind of careful protection for the rights which had arisen under these obligations.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the sanctity of contract. That is an admirable principle which some of us on this side of the House, at least, would like to see the Government observe more often. In the case of this Bill, they seem to be doing the right thing, though as to whether their purpose in doing it is free from blame I frankly have my suspicions, as has my hon. Friend.
There was one remark made by the right hon. Gentleman in explaining the purpose of the Bill which I found somewhat puzzling and difficult to understand. As I read the Explanatory Memorandum—I will not repeat the words as they have been mentioned by both my hon. Friends—the main purpose of this Bill is to cheapen and simplify the procedure whenever a change in the rental becomes necessary.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Hay
I got down his exact words. He said there were only two advantages from the contract. One is that there is a stipulated and fixed rental charge, and not something which fluctuated, and, when the contract is terminated, there are certain rights, liabilities and obligations which have to be observed by the Post Office. Then the right hon. Gentleman told the House that, in the event of there being a desire to terminate and replace all the existing contracts, it would cost some £800,000 and would take about a year.
I suppose that is the reason, or one of the reasons, why this Bill is put forward. Frankly, I fail to understand it and I hope that when the Assistant Postmaster-General replies he will explore that with us a little more fully. I cannot see any reason why it should be necessary for the Post Office to worry about terminating and replacing any existing contract. I fail to see the relevance of the money side which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
What is the purpose behind this Bill? Why should it be necessary to cheapen and simplify the procedure whenever a change in the rental becomes necessary? If I have a contract—as indeed I have—with the right hon. Gentleman as a subscriber, and he wishes to increase the rental which he charges me, he has to give me a month's notice to terminate my existing contract. Then, in effect, he says, "If you want to go on taking this service after the expiration of your month's notice I am prepared to offer you continued service, but only on the basis that you pay a little higher rental"; and in 999 cases out of every 1,000 the average individual subscriber simply knows that his telephone charges have gone up.
He does not worry about all the internal complications; that in fact his contract has been terminated and a fresh contract offered to him. It is in that context that I find some difficulty in following the main point which the right hon. Gentleman made. Possibly that is due to stupidity on my part; possibly it is because he did not make himself very clear, but I 622 would like the point elucidated a little more by the Assistant Postmaster-General.
The right hon. Gentleman described this Bill as a "tidying-up" Bill, and put it forward to the House as being a Measure which, when passed, will give him greater opportunity to give service, and will remove some of the handicaps and disabilities under which at present he labours. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston) described it, I thought quite appropriately, as a machinery Bill. I think we are entitled to ask what exactly is the purpose of this Bill? It may be a machinery Bill but for what purpose is the machinery set up?
To begin with, the intention, as has been said, is to terminate these five million existing contracts with some kind of preservation of their rights under new regulations. Some of us on this side of the House are inclined to think that there may be in this Bill a stalking horse for an increase in telephone charges. If that is so, we ought to have known something about it a little earlier than today.
Let me deal with those two points. First, this question of termination of contracts by this Bill, and their replacement by regulation, is a very big principle which this House ought to examine carefully. I would stipulate two important considerations which have to be put forward before we agree to this procedure. First, any change which this procedure brings about should not be to the prejudice of the existing subscribers.
I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that if Parliament gives him this power to bring contracts to an end, then, when a new service is granted to the subscriber under regulation, the service offered, and the conditions upon which it is offered, should not be less advantageous to the subscriber than it was under the previous contract.
§ Mr. Hobson
The hon. Member will agree that the Postmaster-General has the right to terminate a contract now if he so desires?
§ Mr. Hay
Of course he has, no one denies that. But what he is saying is, "I wish to have the power, not only to terminate contracts but also to offer a service under regulation." That is the purpose of the Bill, as I understand it. What I am saying is that if we are agreeing to this on the wide-spread scale envisaged of the termination of all the 623 telephone contracts in the country, and the replacement of all of them by regulation powers, that should not be done to the prejudice of existing subscribers. They should not be in a worse position because the service provided for them is under regulation rather than under individual contracts. It is a limited point, but I am certain it is agreed.
The second consideration I would put forward is that if there is to be any change in the rental charges, or charges for calls, a proper period of notice should be given before those come into operation. At the moment, if it is proposed to increase the rental charge in any individual case, the right hon. Gentleman has to give a month's notice to terminate the contract and offer service at the new rate. I do not think he would want to do anything different from that when he is running this telephone service under regulation powers. I hope that the right of reasonable notice to the subscriber, if any increase in charges becomes necessary, will be preserved.
In a way it is a pity that we have to consider this Clause without some kind of draft of the regulations which are proposed. I think it would have been possible for the right hon. Gentleman to publish, possibly, a White Paper—I see that he is indicating that the regulations are to be tremendously extensive. If that is so, I think that is something we should have been told before. If these regulations are to be so enormous as all that what about the individual subscribers? At the moment their contract and rate of service is shown on a piece of paper and if they want to know anything more about it there are certain regulations which they can look up. Is it the idea to have enormous regulations?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Member appreciates the position that at the moment the subscriber has a small piece of paper which contains only one figure, the rental charge. All the other conditions are to be in this mass of regulations and the position under the new order will not be worse than it is now, which is the point he has been making. It will not be worse than at present.
§ Mr. Hay
That is a very significant announcement because if we are to have an enormous volume containing these regu- 624 lations including, I presume from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, details of the charges, I think that rather supplements the fears felt by some hon. Members on this side of the House about this Bill, and that the position of subscribers will be much worse than it is now.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Hay
Well, perhaps we disagree about that. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that he will bring in the Regulations after the recess. If, in fact, they are to be so enormous in size as he has just indicated, that adds greatly to the weight of the argument made from these benches that there should be some special procedure whereby Parliament will exercise more detailed control over the regulations than merely negative procedure.
I can imagine what will happen. The right hon. Gentleman, when this Bill is on the Statute Book, will lay on the Table a huge volume containing these new telephone regulations. Every hon. Member will be supplied with a copy. In the time that we get after listening to the speeches from the Front Benches on both sides of the House—and the back benches, too—and answering the correspondence of our constituents, a lot of it dealing with complaints as to bad service by the right hon. Gentleman's Department, we shall have the opportunity of reading through this enormous volume.
To say that we must then ask the House to present a Prayer to His Majesty that such regulations should be annulled, if we thought that there was some small point with which we did not agree without the opportunity of discussing possible Amendments, would be a very bad way of dealing with the matter. I urge that consideration be given to the suggestion that some other form of procedure should be adopted.
Both my hon. Friends who have spoken from this side of the House, and indeed the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), who is no longer present, referred to the question of the increased charges. I do not know whether it is the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to increase telephone charges in the near future. I do not know, and he will not tell us. He has not told us up to now, but I mark two points. First, it is rather 625 odd that the proposal enshrined in this Bill comes forward at the crucial moment when the charges for a number of other Post Office services are being increased. That is somewhat significant. The second point is that, if it is the right hon. Gentleman's intention to increase telephone charges in the near future, this Bill will make it far more convenient for him to do that. To use even his own argument, it will make it less expensive for him to do it.
§ Mr. Hay
We are labouring under a handicap in that we do not know what is in the right hon. Gentleman's mind or what is at the moment going round between him in his Department and the Treasury. If the intention is to increase telephone charges, we ought to be told before this debate is over and we are asked to vote upon whether or not the Bill should have a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
I cannot imagine any Postmaster-General introducing any Bill to make it more difficult for him to increase charges.
§ Mr. Hay
The hon. Gentleman ought to listen to what is said.
Assuming for the moment that it is the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to increase telephone charges, is he really certain that such increases are necessary? I do not propose to go into all the long arguments already advanced as to the economies with regard to telephone charges, particularly in the Civil Service, which could be made. The hon. Member for Leeds, West, gave us an example of quite unnecessary extravagance. Is the right hon. Gentleman certain in his own mind that the door is absolutely locked, barred and bolted so that he cannot, even at this stage, comply with the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury that we should return to cash payments by Government Departments to the Post Office? That is something which we on this side of the House are entitled to press on behalf of the taxpayer.
626 The right hon. Gentleman is obviously in favour of it. His speech at Cardiff on 20th April this year was really a plea for that very thing to happen. The right hon. Gentleman furrows his brow. Perhaps he has forgotten his words. He started by pointing out to his audience that the Post Office is tied to "an archaic and Gladstonian idea of finance." He had obviously forgotten at that stage that a principle which Mr. Gladstone always enshrined in his finance was to see that the community was not taxed almost out of existence to pay for the extravagance of Government Departments. Also, I doubt very much whether Mr. Gladstone would have introduced a Bill like this without telling us whether or not he intended to increase telephone charges. The right hon. Gentleman then said:All the money goes to the Treasury. We must ask the Treasury for every penny we spend. We have no reserve funds. I hope we shall be able to reconstitute the conception of the Post Office in the financial organisation of this country to free it from all the strings which are imposed upon it, and all those limitations which are the consequences of the present financial organisation and its relation to the Treasury.I have seldom heard the case for cash payments between Government Departments and the Post Office put more clearly. It is rather a pity that, with that in mind, he still retains his present office, although I am very glad still to see him there. If he really felt as strongly as that, it was of course the open season for resignations. I doubt whether it would have shaken the Government very much, but it might have brought home the point.
I address this question directly to the Assistant Postmaster-General. We ought to know what is the reason why cash payments cannot be resumed. That is a question to which, we having asked it several times before, we are entitled to receive an answer. It is a suggestion which would go a long way towards relieving the Post Office of a certain amount of its obligation, and it would certainly make any question of an increase in the telephone charges rather more problematical than it is at the moment. The citizen is entitled to know when he picks up the telephone and pays 2d. for a call that he is not paying something for a Civil Service telephone call—possibly one for 627 the hon. Member for Leeds, West, warning somebody of his impending arrival.
Another point about the Bill is in regard to the unfortunate Clause 3. Clause 3 is the one which repeals Sections 17 and 18 of the Telegraph Act, 1868. I was rather sorry that in his explanation of this Clause the Postmaster-General did not deal with the first of the two Sections which are to be repealed. He told us that it was intended that it should no longer be necessary for telegraphic messages to be paid for in stamps. I think we all agree with that. After all, with the colour of stamps changing as frequently as they do today, it is just as well that we should have no further confusion.
I am concerned with the first part—Section 17 of the Telegraph Act, 1868. The Clause in the Bill informs us that that requires:that telegraphic messages having priority in order of transmission over other messages shall be stamped with the word 'priority' by the Secretary of State or a government department and retained for twelve months by the Postmaster General.I must confess that I was intrigued by those words. I should like to know, purely from personal inquisitiveness, why it is necessary to repeal that provision.
In conclusion, I should like to sum up our view of this Bill. We appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman feels strongly about this matter and that he thinks that this Bill will help the running of his Department. Therefore, we do not propose to resist its Second Reading. We are, however, a little suspicious, I think with justification, about the timing of the Bill, about the wording and also the manner in which it has been introduced.
We consider that Amendments are necessary to probe the intentions of the Government and also to safeguard the subscriber. We insist—and I think we shall possibly have some tussles about this in Committee—that these regulations, when eventually made, should be subject to a rather different procedure than the purely negative one, under which they can be laid and are subject to annulment only by a Prayer.
There is one other question which is prominent in the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I should like to know whether the provisions of 628 this Bill and the procedure which it lays down are going to make the telephone service more efficient. I do not propose to throw any brickbats at the right hon. Gentleman or the telephone service tonight, but I am certain that everybody in this country wants an efficient telephone service. I have said before that I believe that we have one of the best telephone services in the world, but we want to see it better still.
I remember a debate which we had on the Motion for the Adjournment last November, in which I pressed the Government in turn to press the Treasury for more money for the telephone service. It is vitally important that they should continue to press for it. The situation today, as far as new subscribers are concerned, is just as bad as it was before, and we ought, if we possibly can, to see that this Bill, when it goes on the Statute Book, is not only a useful and workable Act of Parliament, but that it also does something to increase the efficiency of the telephone service.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)
We have had a very interesting and very friendly debate. If I might venture to say so, as is their wont on Second Reading, some hon. Members have diverged from the exact terms of the Bill. Reference has been made in very general terms of the efficiency of the Post Office, and the charges that are made for the services rendered by the Post Office, and, to that extent, some of the speeches have been rather critical. All I wish to say in answer to those points is that, so far as Britain is concerned, our postal charges and telephone service charges are cheaper than those of most other countries of the world, and I think that, on examination, our services will be found to be equally as efficient.
The chief point in favour of the Bill is that it actually gives Parliament more power than it already possesses. At present, my right hon. Friend can come along and merely lay before the House regulations to increase call and trunk charges and Parliament has no say in the matter, except in so far as it could be raised on a Supply Day. We are now going further under a system by which regulations can be laid dealing with increased charges, and those regulations can be subject to the negative resolution 629 procedure. Reference has been made in the debate to this procedure.
Some hon. Members, whose points of view I appreciate, desire ways and means of amending this procedure, because they may find themselves in favour of part of a measure, but not the whole of it. To bring the point down to Post Office matters, they might wish to reduce the charges for telephones, and it would be impossible for them to do it, because, under that procedure, they must either accept or reject the whole of it. I suggest that that is a general question for the whole House, and not simply one for my right hon. Friend alone. It is something which affects the whole of delegated legislation, and, therefore, we shall have to continue with the present method.
§ Mr. R. V. Grimston
Is the hon. Gentleman announcing now that he will not accept anything on the Committee stage?
§ Mr. Hobson
Not at all. Nothing that I have said means that I will not accept suggestions in Committee. I realise the difficulty of the matter, and I think I am right in saying that this question has not only been raised in the House in relation to the Post Office, but also in connection with Prayers which have affected other Departments.
On the question of the rentals, my right hon. Friend pointed out at great length the difficulties of terminating rentals. We all recollect the debate in 1949. If we had no termination of the rental contract, the fact would still remain that it is still open for my right hon. Friend to increase the existing rentals without any reference to Parliament. Under this Bill, Parliament would have a say in fixing the rentals, and surely that is something which hon. Members opposite, who are always critical of the fact that Parliament has not sufficient power, should be able to support, when we are giving Parliament the power to have a say about what rentals shall be charged.
Among the other points raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston), was the question of the shared service and whether it was to be a permanent service. It is impossible to say now whether it will or not, but in view of the shortage of telephones at present it is obvious that we shall have to carry on with that method of service. The right 630 hon. Gentleman also asked for an assurance, which has already been given by my right hon. Friend, to the effect that in no circumstances will contracts be abrogated, whether they be short contracts of one month, the older contracts of three months, or the long-term contracts which exist in special cases and which are referred to in and are certainly covered by Clause 2 (2) of the Bill. We would obviously honour all these contracts.
Another point raised by the hon. Gentleman was the question of secrecy in the case of shared services. We cannot give any assurance on that matter now, but we are examining it. The House will be aware that in many cases we have already passed to separate accountancy with regard to shared services, which is an advantage to the subscriber. I was very pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the Bill. Having himself been at the Post Office, I can well understand that he realises the difficulties which exist in connection with this rental problem.
Reference has been made to what the regulations will or will not do. The inference was drawn, and quite rightly, that regulations will be made under which my right hon. Friend will have power to act. That being so, the House would, again quite rightly, desire some information. As they exist at the moment, the regulations deal very specifically under the contract with the following matters. First of all, the cost of the rental is covered by the contract, as is the connection or the transfer charge and the 15 per cent. surcharge which was passed in 1940. Many charges, of course, are governed by regulations. Call charges, local internal trunk charges, the power to refuse to supply a subscriber with a line or to disconnect are all governed by regulations which have merely to be laid in the House.
I can think of quite a number of regulations under which my right hon. Friend will have freedom to act. For instance, he would have such freedom to act when considering whether a private subscriber should be charged the private or the business rate. One cannot very well lay down in a regulation strict rules as to how to decide that problem. Again, in the case of, say, a ship docking in the Port of London, we cannot decide the exact tariff which that ship should pay for the 631 use of a telephone in that dock. It would depend on all sorts of circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), made reference, I think in a critical vein, about a dereliction of duty on the part of one of the officers of one of my right hon. Friends' Departments. But in the case of a person who desires to have a message left or passed to him on another telephone, it is quite impossible to lay down strict conditions. There must be a degree of latitude which the Post Office, being a big business undertaking, is surely entitled to expect.
There is no deep-dyed scheme on the part of my right hon. Friend or of Post Office officials to try to take powers under the regulations. In any event, in many cases they already possess them. If we go through the regulations, particularly those which were laid in 1936, we find that a great deal of power is given to the Postmaster-General under them, and that is rightly so because, after all, we are a business concern.
My own view is that this Measure is long overdue. The reasons why we want it were indicated by my right hon. Friend in his opening remarks. Why should there not be flexibility in charging rentals in the same way as there is in fixing the call rates? Let us take the analogy of the electricity industry, which is a fair analogy. Here we have units sold at a cheap rate in precisely the same way as we have calls charged at a cheap rate; and we have fixed prices, which the authority can alter. But my right hon. Friend is not in a position to alter rentals. He has no flexibility in dealing with the problem.
§ Mr. Hobson
That is so, but let us look at it from a practical point of view. There are five million contracts affecting three million people at a cost of £800,000. Is it suggested that we should go through that every time? Of course not; it would be too absurd. What we intend to do is in line with what already happens on the Continent, in the United States of America and in Canada. Let us take the case of Hull. All that need be done to make an alteration in rentals is to announce in the local papers, those circulating in the 632 county borough of Hull, that in a month's time there will be an increase or a decrease in rentals.
The Bill simplifies procedure and it subjects all charges to the control of Parliament. It may be true that there are a few exceptions and that under regulations the Postmaster-General would have power to negotiate charges, particularly in connection with Clause 2 (2). But we cannot expect to put in a regulation precisely what we intend to charge the British Broadcasting Corporation, for example, for the hire of a line. A certain degree of flexibility must be left to the Department.
I feel that hon. Members opposite did not fully appreciate that the Postmaster-General can at present alter rentals, provided he gives notice, without any reference to Parliament at all; but here we are giving Parliament the authority. It is true that the authority is given by the negative Resolution procedure and that hon. Members opposite have criticised the form. It may be that they will move an Amendment on the Committee stage. But even taking into consideration their view of the negative procedure, the fact is that this Bill gives Parliament far greater authority than it has at the moment.
The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) was under the impression that there would be scores of new regulations. That does not follow at all. My right hon. Friend did not say that.
§ Mr. Hobson
He may have said that there are a lot of regulations in existence. That is perfectly true.
§ Mr. Hay
I am sorry, but I must intervene. I suggested that we ought to have had draft regulations and it was at that point that the Postmaster-General indicated, by a motion of his hands, that the size of the draft regulations would be so enormous that it would be quite impracticable to issue them as a draft.
§ Mr. Hobson
The regulations can be seen in the Library, but we have got the regulations, and the regulations will be the existing regulations plus those regulations which deal with the cost of the rental. However, it is not fair—I think that that is the correct word to use—to 633 assume that if this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament we shall have a sudden surfeit of regulations. That is an exaggeration, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree.
Legal points were raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), and they will have to be gone into in Committee. I do not think that I can now answer some of the detailed questions that he brought up, although I have already dealt with the point about the power to act under the regulations that will be laid. I am pleased to hear that the Opposition are to agree to the Bill's being read a Second time. I think it is a Bill which is probably long overdue. It is one which commends itself to me—and, I am sure, to the House—in so far as it will enable all charges now to be subject to some degree of Parliamentary control which, hitherto, Parliament did not possess.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Could the hon. Gentleman answer the specific question I asked him on Clause 1 (2): Whether, in the first place, power is taken to exclude the citizen in dispute with the Post Office from access to the courts, and if that power is taken, whether it is the intention to use it?
§ Mr. Hobson
That is a point which will have to be contained within the regulations when they are made. That is a very important point, I agree, and it is one of which we shall have to hear more in the Committee stage. The whole intention behind the Bill—and I think that the intention is perfectly clear, in so far as there is no abrogation of contract—is that there should be consideration given—and this is the point the hon. Gentleman made—in the regulations to be made to safeguarding the rights of the individual.
§ Mr. R. V. Grimston
The hon. Gentleman has given no indication, for which my hon. Friends asked, of what increase in rental charges he has in mind or whether they will be made. Could he give us an indication now?
§ Mr. Hobson
This Bill does not deal with charges. So far as I can see there is no intention of increasing rentals this year.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. Sparks.]