HC Deb 29 March 1960 vol 620 cc1146-9
The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a short statement about the future of the Post Office.

The Government have decided to give practical recognition to the commercial character of the Post Office. A Command Paper, which is now available in the Vote Office, describes how it is proposed to give effect to this.

The Government's intention is to separate the current finances of the Post Office from the Exchequer. A Statutory Trading Fund for the Post Office under the control of the Postmaster-General would be set up. All Post Office receipts would be paid into it; all Post Office payments would be met out of it. The Postmaster-General's power to draw on the Fund would lapse unless it were renewed each year by an affirmative Resolution of the House.

The commercial character of the Post Office has already been recognised in some degree. These proposals will complete this process by giving the Post Office statutory recognition as a self-contained business. They will encourage the Post Office to approach the problems or organisation and management more commercially and to evince an even greater sense of enterprise in providing services which satisfy the needs of the whole community.

Mr. Ness Edwards

In welcoming what sounds like a freedom charter for the Post Office, I must congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on being the first Conservative Postmaster-General to bring forward such a progressive step. I presume that we shall see the fuller extent of it in the White Paper. I only want to say now that I hope the right hon. Gentleman has not succumbed to the blandishments from this side of the House, which has been advocating this for a long time.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether this means the end of the Post Office as the instrument of taxation? Will he say a word about the position of Post Office workers? Will he also say whether there is to be any weakening of Post Office accountability? Finally, may we have an assurance that we shall have a debate before the legislation?

Mr. Bevins

The question of a debate is for the usual channels, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but I am sure that an interchange of views on this subject would be helpful to the Government.

On the question of Parliamentary control, the right hon. Gentleman will see when he reads the White Paper that we are proposing, among other things, that my power to draw on the Post Office Fund should lapse, unless it is renewed by affirmative Resolution every year, and that effective Parliamentary control is preserved in the case of the Post Office Post Office staffs will retain their full status as civil servants, as now.

Mr. Bellenger

Will the right hon Gentleman say now whether this will involve freedom by the Post Office to deal with capital assets belonging to the Post Office, as is rather indicated in some reports in the newspapers this morning?

Mr. Bevins

That is one of many matters which will flow from the fact that the Post Office will be behaving in a more commercial fashion.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the new arrangements will in no way limit the powers of hon. Members to question him, as heretofore?

Mr. Bevins

It will not limit hon. Members in any way at all.

Mr. Albu

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether these new arrangements will assist the Post Office to make good its present serious shortage of scientific and technical staffs necessary to provide the essential technical research and development that the Post Office so badly needs?

Mr. Bevins

I should have thought that most right hon. and hon. Members who are familiar with the Post Office are, on the whole, well satisfied with the research work going on at Dollis Hill, but if the hon. Gentleman has any particular part of research in mind I should be glad to discuss it with him.

Mr. Ness Edwards

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer my question whether or not Post Office charges will now completely disappear from the Budget statement?

Mr. Bevins

That is perfectly true.

Mr. W. R. Williams

Is the Postmaster-General aware that there are some hon. Members on this side—and, I believe, on the other side, too—who would prefer not to come to any very firm conclusion on the very brief statement that he has made without having had an opportunity of very carefully scrutinising in detail the proposals that he has briefly adumbrated to the House today?

Further to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) has said, may I press the right hon. Gentleman to make quite sure that the House will have at least a day in which to consider changes that may be very fundamental to the Post Office, and upon which there may be various points of view, on principle as well as on detail?

Mr. Bevins

Yes, Sir. I well appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, and I have already said that, for my part, I should welcome an exchange of views.

Mr. Mason

While not wanting to commit my right hon. and hon. Friends about the contents of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, having in mind the remarkable relations existing between the Post Office and its unions, am I correct in assuming that the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office Engineering Union will be quickly consulted immediately following publication of the White Paper?

Further, if the proposals of the White Paper are finality adopted, will the staff of the sales department of the Post Office—who, for most of the time in the post-war years, have been telling people why they cannot have telephones—act in accordance with the last paragraph of this statement by using salesmanship and advertisement?

Finally, as the proposals will, if agreed to, mean legislation, is the Postmaster-General aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends will certainly want a day's debate on them?

Mr. Bevins

I have, of course, already said that the status of Post Office workers is not affected at all by the proposals in the White Paper, and, to that extent, consultations are not really necessary. Telephone development throughout the country hinges, of course, on the future of capita] investment, and the Post Office, like other nationalised industries, is subject to Government control.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

The statement puts no Question before the House. We really cannot debate it.

Mr. Short

I do not know, Mr. Speaker, whether you will consider it as a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

If it is not, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not raise it as such.

Mr. Short

My point is that in all the supplementary questions nothing has been said about the Post Office user. Will you allow a supplementary question on that?

Mr. Speaker

No. What one has to do is to bring these discussions on statements to an end, always leaving in the air a number of brilliant points still to be raised.