HC Deb 09 December 1953 vol 521 cc2123-35

11.14 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

I beg to move, That the contract dated 27th November, 1953, between Her Majesty's Postmaster General, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation, and the Eastern Telephone and Telegraph Company, for the provision, construction and maintenance of a transatlantic submarine telephone cable system, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved. The House would doubtless like me to say a few words about this Agreement before I ask for its approval. We are, by the Agreement, making telephone history. It is approximately 90 years since the first transatlantic cable was laid by the "Great Eastern." That was a telegraph cable, and could only be used for telegraph purposes. Many years had to elapse before there was telephone communication across the Atlantic. This was only achieved in 1927.

This telephonic communication was, of course, by radio, and useful as this link was, and essential as it became both in peace and war, it suffered all the handicaps which a radio link suffers, that is, from atmospherics. As the House knows, these disturbances by atmospherics are worse at certain periods than at others, and frequently the circuit is out of order altogether. Taking the good periods with the bad, we only get good telephonic communication for about 60 per cent. of the time, and anyone who has to speak regularly to the United States or Canada realises that there is this risk of fading, and also of delay in getting connections. But it is not only the telephonic communication with the United States and Canada which is handicapped by atmospherics. They have also affected our telegraphic communications with Australia and New Zealand, because, when direct telegraphic communication is interrupted through the Middle East, the messages have to go across the Atlantic and across Canada. Therefore, anything that can be done to improve our contacts across the Atlantic not only helps our telephonic, but also our telegraphic communications with other parts of the Commonwealth. This vision—I use that word because I think it is the right word to use—of a transatlantic cable free from atmospherics has been before the engineers on both sides of the Atlantic for many years past, but at last their dreams have come true.

As I think most of us realise, for ordinary telephone communication some means have to be devised of boosting up the signals at every 30 or 40 miles or so. In the case of land lines there is no difficulty about that, and all of us have seen these repeater stations at the side of the road throughout the country.

However, we cannot put booster stations every 30 miles or so across the Atlantic, and it was only through the invention of the submarine telephone repeater, in which this country has played such a very great part, that it became a feasible proposition. In fact, when we are talking about this cable we might remember that the first telephone submarine repeater in the world was installed by the Post Office in 1943, between Anglesey and the Isle of Man.

We have tended to concentrate on repeaters for shallow or medium depths, but on the other side of the Atlantic, in the famous Bell laboratories, they have done a lot of work on deep-sea repeaters. To me it is rather a fascinating thought that it is possible to produce an intricate piece of machinery like a submarine repeater, with its valves and intricacies and all its components, which can be so well designed and so well manufactured that it can be laid at the bottom of the sea, two miles down, and left there for 25 years with the minimum of attention. At that depth it has to withstand a water pressure of five tons to the square inch.

A land repeater can be inspected, dismantled, and, if necessary, replaced at intervals, but one cannot fish up an Atlantic cable every now and again to see how it is going on. But the scientists and the engineers have overcome this problem, and this cable will be the result.

Now a few words about the Agreement itself. It is very gratifying that, at a time when there is so much discoid in the world, we have been able to produce this striking example of friendly co-operation between the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and I should like to take this opportunity to pay a tribute to all those concerned on both sides of the Atlantic for the way in which this Agreement has been reached with such harmony. Negotiations have been difficult and delicate, but they have been carried on with the utmost good will and desire to reach agreement.

The project is divided into several parts. Starting on this side of the Atlantic, there is to be a cable station building near Oban in Scotland, and from Oban to Newfoundland the cable will be fitted with repeaters of American design. The reason for this is, as I said just now, that the Americans have had greater experience of deep-sea cables. They have installed a cable from Havana to Key West and in the past three years it has given excellent service.

Between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia the cable will incorporate repeaters of British type, and the last link in the chain will be a micro-wave radio relay system from Nova Scotia to the United States-Canada border, where it links up with the United States telephone service. Contact with the Canadian communication system will be made at some point between the two on this micro-wave radio relay, but the exact point has not yet been decided.

There are really four partners to the Agreement—the United Kingdom Post Office, the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Eastern Telephone and Telegraph Company, which is a subsidiary of the American company. The conditions of the Agreement are set out in some detail in the covering minute in the document which has been placed before the House. It is hardly necessary for me to go through them individually, but if there are any points which arise I will try to deal with them.

The total cost of the undertaking is about £12½ million. The United Kingdom contribution is a half of that, which will be in kind, including the services of the Post Office cable ship "Monarch," which will lay the cable not only between Newfoundland and this country but also between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

There are two specific points that I might mention. The first is that it has been agreed that if, prior to the laying of a second cable between the United States and the United Kingdom, a cable to the Continent is planned by the Americans, then, subject to this not being contrary to the public interest of the United States, they will enter into discussions with us and the Canadians to determine whether such a cable could be planned so as to give additional facilities between ourselves, Canada and the United States. That is an extremely useful agreement to cover future developments.

The only other thing I want to say relates to the capacity of the cable itself. There will be, in the first instance, six telephone circuits between the United Kingdom and Canada and 29 between the United Kingdom and the United States, and there will also be a number of telegraph circuits to Canada. As I have said previously, this will be a very great help to us, not only so far as telephone communications with Canada are concerned, but telegraphic communications to Australia and New Zealand via Vancouver.

I suppose hon. Members would like to know what are likely to be the profits on the undertaking. It is difficult to say at this juncture. Frankly, we have planning a margin for the future, and we should be very foolish to do anything else. There are at present only 12 circuits to the United States and two to Canada, as compared with what will be 29 to the United States and six to Canada. But with the more reliable service which this cable will provide, and also I think with the expected growth of telephone traffic across the Atlantic under these better conditions, we are confident that, taking the period of the Agreement, which is 25 years, the system will show a profit over the whole term. Those are the main points, and I commend this project to the House as a landmark in the telephone history not only of this country but of the world.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

I do not want to delay the House for any length of time. First, I wish to compliment Her Majesty's Government and the Postmaster-General upon achieving what I regard as an outstanding Agreement. This question of atmospheric interference, particularly in relation to communications with New Zealand and Australia, was one from which I had to suffer very much at the hands of hon. Members opposite, when they were in opposition. The hon. Gentleman, too, has had troubles with regard to it. We had the same troubles with regard to communications with the United States.

There was only one thing that would put it right, and that was to lay this cable across the Atlantic. I should have been prepared to make almost any concession to facilitate the means of communication between ourselves and Canada and the United States—particularly Canada. This Agreement will help Australia and New Zealand when they suffer from atmospheric troubles.

I am not sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman is really sufficiently seized of another point which I want to stress. He said that in the view of his Department this provision will be adequate for the next 25 years. Canada is making gigantic strides. I do not suppose there is any part of the world which has a greater industrial potential. It is developing with tremendous speed. I am not quite satisfied that this provision will meet the expected development of communications between Canada and ourselves.

Mr. Gammans

I hope I did not give that impression. I hope that I did not give the right hon. Gentleman the feeling that I believed that this project, in itself, would cover every likely development for the next 25 years. In fact, we rather doubt it, and that is why there is the paragraph relating to future developments. The reason I mentioned 25 years was to express my belief that over that period the cable will more than pay for itself.

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that information, and I hope that he will take into account the tremendous progress being made by Canada and the vital importance of having adequate communications between Canada and ourselves.

I was a little disturbed to see that the Canadian share is a small one. Canada is to have nine votes, we are to have 41 votes, and the American interests are to have 50, so the Americans have the equal of Canada and ourselves added together. I was hoping that we should have had a little better balance. I know that that represents the capital investment on both sides. We are providing half, and. I take it that the Americans are providing half. I should like to have seen Canada much more in the picture, if that were economically possible.

Paragraph 14 deals with the question of the Canadians deciding to sell their share. There is no indication as to whom they shall sell it, but the voting rights automatically come to this country and to the Postmaster-General. No matter to whom their part of the property is sold, we shall still have 50 per cent. of the voting rights. I should like to have seen a provision which, if the Canadians gave up their part of the property, gave us the option of purchasing it, so that there would not be a selling of that 9 per cent. to an American interest, giving them a greater stake in the undertaking than we had ourselves, although the voting rights would be equal. Perhaps, the hon. Gentleman will say one or two words about that.

Another point concerns paragraph 20. I wish we had some legal hon. Gentleman here to help us with this. That paragraph says: This Agreement and any of the provisions hereof may be altered or added to by any other agreement in writing signed by a duly authorised person on behalf of each party. The question I want to put is whether or not such an agreement, such a change in the Agreement, would require the assent of this House, or whether the terms of the Agreement itself authorise officers of the Government to make alterations in the Agreement without getting the prior approval of this House.

On the face of it someone could, it appears to me, alter this Agreement without getting the approval of the House. I hope that that is not intended. If it is intended I hope that steps will be taken to see that that is put right, so that the rights of this House in this matter shall be safeguarded.

I wish to associate myself once again with the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to everybody on both sides of the Atlantic for arriving at this ideal piece of co-operation. If the Canadians and the Americans and ourselves can get together over a matter of this sort, whereas in the past there was so much jealousy, and achieve this measure of understanding, it augurs well for the future. When this cable is laid by the "Monarch" we shall all take very great pride that a British ship is laying the cable. It is a matter of very great satisfaction to us. I congratulate all who have taken part in arriving at an Agreement which is so very satisfactory.

11.32 p.m.

Major D. McCallum (Argyll)

I want to say only a word or two, representing, as I do, the area in which the terminal of the cable will be brought ashore south of Oban. We are all so happy that the Government in agreement with other Governments will enable this to be done. I want to assure my hon. Friend that the local authorities and my constituents in that area are keenly interested in this great development, and that I am sure the Post Office will find the greatest co-operation from those local authorities when the time comes.

May I ask one or two questions? My hon. Friend told us there will be a cable-house constructed at the Oban terminal. Has he any idea of the type of establishment that that cable house will be? Is it to be the terminal of the cable from which a landline will pass on to London or Glasgow, or wherever the exchanges may be operated? Or will there be a cable house at Kerrera where there will have to be a considerable staff employed?

I mention that merely because he must know, as all hon. Members will know, that there is some pressure on housing accommodation. The local authority, I am sure, will want to help my hon. Friend as best it can by being well prepared in advance to make sure that housing accommodation is available for people who may have to be brought into the locality to staff the terminal. There may be a considerable staff. Could my hon. Friend, therefore, give us an idea of the type of terminal the British end of the cable will be?

11.35 p.m.

Mr. John Edwards (Brighouse and Spenborough)

It is a pity, in some ways, that this important matter could not have had more time for discussion, because, although we are agreed about it, it is very significant. Not only is telephone history being made, but we are committing ourselves tonight to a capital expenditure, in one form or another, of over £6 million.

I think my interest in this matter is known. I was particularly glad when the Assistant Postmaster-General said that all the cable laying would be done by the Post Office cable ship "Monarch," for until I entered the Government in 1947 I had the honour to represent in a trade union capacity almost all the people who are on the "Monarch."

We have to recognise that we are recording a very great achievement tonight, and something which reflects the greatest credit on those who serve the Post Office. It has been said that no defence line is any better than those who man it, and I think that is also true of any service, and it is the skill and devotion of the people in the service which have made this new venture possible and upon which its success depends.

I shall not keep the House for more than a few moments but I want, if I may, to advance one or two points about the cable ship personnel. As the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston) knows, in wartime they render yeoman and sometimes heroic service. In peace time their job is hard, difficult and sometimes extremely unpleasant, and I hope that in making arrangements for this new service the Assistant Postmaster-General will ask his noble Friend to be sure that adequate provisions are made for the men in the service. From the information which is at present available it would appear that the periods of absence of the "Monarch" when laying the transatlantic cable will be far greater than those normally made by Post Office grades, and I hope that the Post Office will recognise that.

There are two particular matters which I want to ask the hon. Gentleman to consider. Already, there has been some experience of the use of the cable ship "Monarch" under charter and visits have been paid by it recently to American ports. I understand that the union concerned, the Post Office Engineering Union, made representations to the Post Office for an allowance to be paid whenever the "Monarch" berths in a port in the dollar area. This berthing will happen again now. I understand that the Post Office replied that they could not pay such an allowance. They said: The facilities available on board ship are such that men need incur no expense on shore except on leisure time pursuits and these are entirely within the men's control. That is the answer which has been given, but, frankly, I do not think it is a very reasonable answer. I should have thought that if men were away for long periods they ought to have some leisure time ashore, and that it would be a modest concession to make to let them go ashore and have a meal or a drink or whatever it is and to recognise that in America these facilities cost a good deal more than they do at home. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to look at this matter.

The second point, about which I do not think any representations have been made, is one which I know from the men on the cable ships is a source of grievance to them. Generally speaking, when the cable ships are on charter the loading of the cable is done by the local labour. In certain cases, in America the men have to do the loading themselves and that means, if we compare with the rates at home of the longshoremen, that the rates of pay which the longshoremen get are anything from four to seven times greater than those of the seamen cable hands on the cable ships. I hope that if it happens that the cable cannot be loaded by local labour, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there may be a source of grievance here on the part of the men on our own ships.

All that I have said is concerned with this point, that I believe we have in the cable ships a splendid lot of officers and ratings. They are as good as can be found anywhere in the world, and I am sure they will do as good a job on this occasion as they have done so many times in the past. Do not damp their enthusiasm for a little extra. It used to be said, "Don't spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar," and I would say, do not damp the enthusiasm of these splendid men. This is an admirable venture, and I am sure that on all sides of the House we hope it will succeed, for it will reflect once again great credit on British officers who have served us so well.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

I do not wish to detain the House, but I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General one question. I wish to refer to paragraph 2 (b) of the Agreement which says: Segment C shall be of the Company's design and shall be provided and constructed, or caused to be provided and constructed, by Eastern, in agreement with C.O.T.C., the Company and the Postmaster-General so far as these parties may require. Then I would refer to paragraph 19, which seems to be some kind of arbitration clause. In sub-paragraph (b) there is reference to courts and tribunals and also to municipal or national law.

I should like to ask whether it would not have been wise to have had some form of arbitration clause in case of such agreement, because it seems to envisage the possibility of the parties to this agreement disagreeing. Would it not, therefore, have been a wise precaution, which might have saved money and unnecessary disagreement in the long run, if there had been some provision for some sort of arbitration without reference to courts or tribunals of the country in question. With that one observation, may I say that I think all of us in this House will welcome this splendid agreement.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

It may seem strange to have two speeches from our side of the House this evening on this subject, but I feel constrained to detain the House for a few moments, because as one who spent five interesting and happy years in the Post Office I do not think I can let the occasion pass without congratulating the Department on this splendid achievement. As Britons, we are entitled to take great pride in the fact that the cable is being manufactured here, probably in this city of London, and, secondly, we must be proud of the fact that the biggest cable ship in the world, Her Majesty's telegraphic ship "Monarch" is laying the cable.

I want to reinforce what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards). As one who has been on cable ships on many occasions, I hope that ways and means will be found of giving the men a little extra when the crews are in America, because of the difference in currency values. When the men get shore leave they will want to have a little recreation, and I do not think it is asking too much of the Treasury to allow that money to be made available for them.

The other point I want to refer to is the submarine repeater. I would not like it to go out from this House that we have not made a successful deep sea repeater. We have, in fact, a deep sea repeater in operation on the cable between Madeira and Recife, in South America, and that was the first one put down.

There is an old French saying "Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose" and I recall how many times I answered Adjournment debates in this House on matters of wireless communications. I well recollect one December, when we had a Test match in Australia, that there was a breakdown in the cable, and we had also the whole Christmas traffic. Next there was a sunspot cycle. In fact, if I may put it this way, we were in a spot. But that was just one of the vagaries with which we had to contend in that system of communication. Tonight, we can take pride in the fact that this is a British achievement, and that the cable is to be laid by a British ship. We are told that the Agreement is to last until 1978; let us hope that it will go on for a hundred years after that.

Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I heartily agree with what the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has just said in his concluding sentence, and I rise just to ask whether any agreement has been reached with the American authorities as to where the cable is to be made. Nothing, so far, has been said about that; is it to be left to open tender? Is it to be made here, or elsewhere, or are certain portions to be manufactured in one country and other parts in another?

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Gammans

With permission of the House, perhaps I may be allowed to deal briefly with the points which have been made by hon. Members. First, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) raised the question of the Canadian contribution and said he wished it was more than 9 percent. The answer is that that was agreed with the Canadians, and was freely negotiated, and I suggest that we really ought not to comment on that aspect of the matter here. He then asked whether any amendments, as specified in paragraph 20, would require the assent of the House. I am not quite sure on that point, although I think the answer would be "yes." Especially, of course, if a change of any major character to the Agreement was envisaged.

Mr. Ness Edwards

If the hon. Gentleman happens to be wrong, would he give an undertaking that any change in the Agreement would be reported to the House?

Mr. Gammans

I should imagine that, in those circumstances, we should have to report to the House; but I think what I have told him is correct.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Argyll (Major McCallum) asked about the staff involved. There would be probably not more than 12 men, and they would not be engaged until about 12 to 18 months before the station comes into operation.

The right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) raised the question of the cable ships, and I am glad that he mentioned this. They have a superb record in peace and in war. Nobody can lay cables better than the British, and we have the finest and most up-to-date cable ship in the world. So far as his two other points are concerned, I suggest that he writes to me when I will try to give him a detailed answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) spoke about the question of disputes, and asked under which law they would be settled. We have endeavoured to get round that problem; there are several parties, and no particular law has been specified in the Agreement.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) referred to telegraph delays to Australia, and I can agree with him that that has been one of the biggest headaches for many years; but, unfortunately, the sunspots come outside the jurisdiction of this House and at this hour I cannot say more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) asked where the cable was to be manufactured. The answer is that that is for competitive tender, and I hope that we, with our long experience of cable making, shall be able to succeed in that direction.

Mr. Gower

I am sorry, but my hon. Friend appears to have misunderstood my point. I did not ask where, in any default of the Agreement, the issue would be tried, but whether something could be done to avoid reference to any court of any of the three parties, and that an independent body should act as arbitrator.

Mr. Gammans

The Agreement has now been signed, and it will not be possible to alter it.

Resolved: That the contract dated 27th November, 1953, between Her Majesty's Postmaster General, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation, and the Eastern Telephone and Telegraph Company, for the provision, construction and maintenance of a transatlantic submarine telephone cable system, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. D. Galbraith.]