HC Deb 01 March 1961 vol 635 cc1693-701

Postponed proceeding on Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, resumed.

Question again proposed.

9.10 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams

When the debate was adjourned at seven o'clock so that the House could discuss the British Transport Commission Bill, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I was dealing with the possible adoption of a five-year plan by the Postmaster-General and the administration as being a rational way of facing up to the problems and requirements of the future.

I mentioned, too, that I was glad to see the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport in his place at that time. He has now disappeared, and after our recent debate I can quite understand why. What I had intended to say about the right hon. Gentleman was that when he was at the Post Office he said that neither the Post Office nor any other comparable business could possibly work on an annual investment of capital investment, and so on, and that a longer-term policy was needed if the Post Office was to succeed in its efforts to meet future problems and requirements.

I imagine that the present Postmaster-General is himself very keen on getting some order of this sort into the business. so that the administration can take a long-term view, not only in the interests of the Post Office, its administration and staff but in the interests of its associated firms which are assisting the Post Office in developing and making the equipment, the installations and the rest.

Those firms, too, are entitled to know exactly what the requirements of the Post Office may be for the next four or five years. It is not much use telling them that the Post Office will want so many thousands of telephones this year, perhaps half that number next year, and maybe double that number in the following year. They must have some forward knowledge so that they can work to a plan.

I shall not trespass on the rules of order by referring at any great length to the problems which, in my opinion, face the right hon. Gentleman and the administration, but some of my hon. Friends have already referred to the need for a good deal of development. Every hon. Member has a list of people in his constituency who are waiting for telephones. They know that people are sharing lines, and we all know the problems associated with that sort of thing. The growth in the numbers of telephone subscribers here lags behind that in some other European countries, and I am sure that the Postmaster-General does not wish to be in that invidious position. I hope that in his assessment of capital requirements, and so forth, he will bear that in mind.

A word now about subscriber trunk dialling. From the information which has been put to me, I have myself great faith in the future of S.T.D. I believe that it is a money-spinner. It will be of great value to telephone-minded people and, from the point of view of the Post Office, I believe that it will be a winner. I cannot for the life of me understand why we should have to wait until 1970 for the scheme to be completed. We shall lose a great deal of money, and it will be quite uneconomic. We shall put ourselves in exactly the same position as the Minister of Transport is in regard to the electrification of the railway between Manchester, Liverpool and London. We have lost money hand over fist simply because we have not correlated our plans and had some continuity in our procedure.

I sincerely hope that the Postmaster-General will reconsider the date, 1970, with a view to having the thing completed as soon as possible in order to bring our internal system of trunk working to the top of the league in Europe, and, indeed, in advance of what is being done in America. I shall say nothing now about the cable laying, exchange equipment or electronic exchanges which will be required. Not very long ago, the Postmaster-General gave an interview to Electronics Weekly, the report of which, I thought, made excellent reading. If the right hon. Gentleman intends to develop along the lines he is advocating, he must ensure that he has available more capital than he has at present.

I turn for a moment or two to satellites. Although the Assistant Postmaster-General must be "fed up" with references to satellites by now, it is a very important matter and the prospects are far more real than our recent debates have indicated. It is no use talking about the thing as if it were something in the dim and distant future, fifteen or twenty years ahead. The satellite programme is being actively considered. I was very interested to read, a few days ago, a report of comments made by Professor Sir Bernard Lovell, of Jodrell Bank, about a test message—the old message we used to send on the teleprinters about the Quick brown fox "and so on—which had been reflected from the moon and received in Washington. When we reach that stage, we are in the realm of immediately practical politics, and it is no use trying to evade the issue at all.

A large amount of capital will be required very soon, and, in spite of all that the Postmaster-General told us in Committee, we on this side are firmly convinced that a good deal of the money will have to be provided by the Post Office to meet immediate developments and research. We ought to be considering these things closely. If I may say (:), I should like the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend to read again some of the speeches made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), who expounded these matters at length. I thought that there was a great deal of weight to be attached to what he said then.

Many of us on this side believe that the Post Office has been suffering for very long from what we now call, for want of a better description, the Thorneycroft philosophy of 1957. As I see it, the tragedy is that, even in 1959 and 1960, we are in just the same position in regard to capital investment as we were prior to the moment when the right hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Thorneycroft) came out with his dictum. We do not regard this as good enough. As I said before, the firms which are developing most rapidly today in electricity, electronics and all the rest, the firms which are expanding and achieving something of value, are the very ones which are borrowing right up to the limit. If the Minister and the House of Commons are to compare the Post Office with the private sector of industry, the Department must be given the same kind of facilities as are available elsewhere.

I come now to Clause 12. Above all things, with the changed accountability to Parliament which is envisaged in the Bill and with the new way of reporting to Parliament, what we on this side, and I believe, hon. Members opposite most desire is that the House will know what the problems are, what the achievements are and what the failures are, so that the House as a whole will be able in an intelligent way to examine the results at the end of the year when the Postmaster-General presents his report.

I do not press it further now, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to re-read what I said in Committee. I made five points. In my view, they are valid points. The House will be better informed on Post Office matters if the reports are presented in the form I suggested, and I hope very much that the right hon. Gentleman will consider the matter seriously again.

There were two issues involved on Clause 13, liabilities and net assets. Both are important at the point of transfer, 31st March, 1961. The liabilities represent the burdens which will be placed on the Post Office. The assets will be the yardstick by which future achievement will be judged. I accept the assurances in regard to net assets which the right hon. Gentleman gave. I think that he has satisfied us, in regard to net assets, that he has had a reasonable, equitable, and fair bargain with the Treasury.

I still have grave doubts about liabilities. I am not at all sure that the right hon. Gentleman's reply on this point was as satisfactory as his reply on net assets. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) referred to a statement which the Postmaster-General made in Committee: The first leg of the Amendment covers the question of surpluses handed to the Exchequer in the past. All I would say on that is that I could rewrite history in the Bill. Unfortunately, I cannot."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Standing Committee F, 22nd February, 1961; c. 280.] I do not ask the Postmaster-General to rewrite history. No one can do that. What I do ask him, in very simple terms, is to say to the Treasury, "We have given you a lot of money. We have handed over surpluses. At the same time as we hand surpluses over to you, we have to borrow money for our own purposes "—

Mr. Houghton

The same money.

Mr. Williams

Yes, the same money —" We have to borrow it from you, and it is irrational and unreasonable that you should now tell us that, while we hand over surpluses, the liabilities must still be put on our shoulders. You should not tell us that it is a burden which we must carry not only in the capital sum but in the continuing rate of interest, some at the old rate of 41 per cent. and some at the new rate of 51 per cent. "It is unreasonable, and we urge that, between now and the time when the Bill passes through another place, a further effort should be made by the Postmaster-General.

I am sorry to have taken longer than some of my Friends and, perhaps, hon. Members opposite may have wished. While I have many reservations about the Bill, and I wish that the Postmaster-General had responded to the very helpful suggestions which we made and had conveyed our views firmly to the Treasury, I wish the Bill well in all its further stages.

I should like to say a word on the subject of incentives in connection with productivity. The staff will be civil servants. I am proud to think that they will remain civil servants. I should be very sorry indeed if this long, historic and honoured connection between the Post Office staff and the Civil Service had been broken. As one who has been connected directly and indirectly with the Civil Service since 1912, I would have felt is grievously.

However, we cannot throw on the Treasury the full obligation of paying Post Office staff in accordance with the new responsibilities that will be placed upon them in this new and highly scientific industry. I know that the Post Office workers and the Whitley Councils representing all grades in the Civil Service will co-operate with the Minister in the future as they have done in the past, but he himself must keep the lamp of faith burning for these people. They will not do it on words; there must be deeds as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has said that today, St. David's Day, is a good day for this Bill to go from this House. I agree that it is a great day. All I would say is that I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look to the future of the Post Office in the same way as my old patron saint looked from the darkness of his old days, with the bright eyes of faith looking forward to a bright, new, happy, prosperous and peaceful future. I wish the Bill luck.

9.27 p.m.

Mr. Bevins

I rise primarily to express my appreciation to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have evinced an interest in this Bill throughout its various stages, and especially to those hon. Members who took part in our proceedings in Standing Committee. The detailed provisions of this Bill are not always easily comprehensible, but I do not think that that is as important as the fact that the Government and I are convinced that they are right.

I have no intention of pursuing hon. Members too closely along some of the byways that they have trodden this evening, partly because I have a respect for the rules of order and partly because do not wish to speak at undue length. But I should, as a matter of courtesy, like to touch upon one or two of the major questions which have been posed this evening.

The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr Houghton) and his hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) and for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) all expressed anxiety about the borrowing provisions in Clause 10. The figures in Clause 10 are not related to specified periods of time. This Bill makes no attempt of any kind to govern the level of Post Office capital investment in the years that lie ahead. Of course, I understand and sympathise with the apprehensions that have been expressed about the level of capital investment in the Post Office. It would be absurd if any hon. Member were to suggest that I, as Postmaster-General, am satisfied with the present level of our capital investment. I am not. No Postmaster-General worth his salt would be in the present circumstances. I ask the House to accept my word that I shall continue, as I have tried to do, to secure the greatest possible volume of capital for the development in all its forms of the activities of the Post Office.

The hon. Member for Openshaw has been lecturing me, in a very kindly way, about the merits of a five-year plan. I am far more interested in doing things than talking about them, and I would rather not dwell upon that possibility on the occasion of this Third Reading speech. Several hon. Gentlemen have put detailed questions to me as to how we propose to spend our capital investment and how we should propose to spend it if we got more money. There have been references to kiosks, the development of subscriber trunk dialling and the general development of the telephone service. I am not at all sure that any of these questions are strictly relevant to the consideration of this Bill on Third Reading, but I can tell the House that whatever capital investment is at the disposal of the Post Office will be wisely spent in the years that lie ahead.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner) in one of his rather more charming asides said—and I took down his words—"The right hon. Gentleman cannot prevent me from thinking". That is perfectly true, and I am tempted to add that I cannot prevent him from talking, nor, I hasten to add, would I wish to do so, but I did take very careful note of what he said, and indeed of what was said by other of his hon. Friends.

There were various references to the earning of 8 per cent. on net assets by the Post Office, and I confess that I have searched this Bill, and in particular Clause 6, very carefully but cannot find any reference whatever to this intention of earning 8 per cent. on assets. As I do not wish to transgress the rules of order, I do not propose to say anything about it.

The hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) rose about two hours ago to ask me a series of questions. I waited in vain for ten minutes and at the end of that time I discovered, amongst a good deal of obscurities, one very vague question, which I can most courteously answer by sending the hon. Gentleman a copy of my Second Reading speech and the last accounts of the Post Office.

Mr. Houghton

I think, perhaps, it is only fair to remind the House that at that time my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) was getting into difficulties with the Chair, and perhaps decided that he could not go on with his questions.

Mr. Bevins

I appreciate that, but it was not my fault that the hon. Member was getting into difficulties with the Chair.

I believe that, on the whale, this Bill has stood up well to our debates. Its main provisions, I think I can say quite firmly, have 'been welcomed by both sides of the House, and I appreciate that the questions that have been raised have been raised not out of hostility to the Post Office but out of a desire to be helpful. I can only hope that the explanations which my hon. Friend and I have given at various stages have satisfied the House, because we 'have been at very great pains to get the Bill right. Let me add that the much maligned Treasury has also been most helpful and cooperative in the framing and drafting of this Bill.

I have never claimed, nor has any Government spokesman ever claimed, that this Bill of itself will revolutionise the operations of the Post Office overnight. The Bill does two things. First, it clears away the cobwebs of ancient practices, especially on the accountancy side, and, secondly, it gives us that sense of independence and responsibilty without which no one can be on his mettle. I am confident that this Bill will give the Post Office a real incentive to adapt itself to public demand and to show greater enterprise. If I were not satisfied that these things were so, I should never have introduced this Bill into the House.

A good deal has been said today about the possibility of the Post Office becoming too commercial in its approach and attitude, and the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) said something about that. I see no difficulty at all in putting more emphasis on the commercial character of the Post Office, and yet, at the same time —and I mean this sincerely—respecting our social obligations to various sections of the community. I am quite sure that Parliament, and indeed the Post Office and myself, will see to it that we honour our social obligations. But what Parliament, in the very nature of things, cannot do is to influence and to shape the administrative mind of the Past Office. However modest the hon. Member for Sowerby may think I am, that is primarily my responsibility, and I shall discharge that responsibility to Parliament and to the public in this new regime not as a tycoon but as a servant of Parliament and of the public.

The Post Office, as has been rightly said this afternoon, is one of our oldest institutions—certainly the oldest of the State-owned industries in this country. The men and women who work for us are loyal and devoted people. They co-operate with the Post Office and with me in a considerable number of changes, reforms and innovations, and I am grateful to them. We have very great traditions. But this Bill is right, and it is right because it will help us to give the Post Office a new surge of vitality which cannot but be in the interests both of the staff of the Post Office and of the general public.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.