HC Deb 13 June 1967 vol 748 cc455-62
Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 4, line 26, at the end to add: (4) Subsection (2) above shall not come into effect until regulations have been made by the Postmaster General. The Amendment is designed as a small but important check to the bureaucratic powers which the Postmaster-General will have under the Bill. Subsection (2) gives the right hon. Gentleman extensive powers to require all television dealers to give past details of all hire purchase and credit sale transactions. In Committee, the right hon. Gentleman very fairly recognised that this is a very big job. He has underlined that admission by writing into the Bill the provision that dealers shall have 12 months in which to prepare this information.

In Committee, the right hon. Gentleman was pressed on the question whether it was necessary to have this power. This is the central point of our argument.

He said this: … I do not rule out the possibility that, if things … go extremely well—and the 2million come in on their own, as it were—it might not be necessary to invoke at once—or even at all—the powers I seek under subsection (2). … I make no promise. The power must be there. Later, he added these particularly important words: … if there is virtually no existing evader to be caught when the Bill takes effect, or, indeed at the beginning of next year, I shall not use powers to catch him."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 2nd May, 1967, c. 61.] Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman was saying that, if the powers of detection and the power to take reports from dealers of current sales prove effective, he will not invoke this further power and put upon dealers the tremendous backlog of work involved.

The question of timing is important. As I understand it, Part I of the Bill comes into effect on 1st January, 1968. Twelve months' thence, 1st January, 1969, is the earliest possible date at which the Postmaster-General could use the power to get back-information from dealers. Obviously, it is well ahead yet.

The purpose of the Amendment is to make sure that the Postmaster-General, if he wants to use the powers under Clause 3(2), should report to the House of Commons on how the existing arrangements have been operating, or whether they have succeeeded and, more particularly, on the margin between success and failure, before claiming the right to use these powers. It would be wrong to give the right hon. Gentleman a cheque completed as to everything except date and ready to be presented to the bank when he required.

The right hon. Gentleman should first explain to the House, or the House should have the right to discuss on an Order, the reasons why, in the light of the evidence then available, he claimed that it was necessary to use these further powers.

10.45 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) reminded us of what my right hon. Friend had said in Committee, but he did not complete the reference. My right hon. Friend went on to say, "Of course, I shall be just as delighted as anyone else if I do not need to use these powers". The hon. Gentleman may feel that even that statement made in Standing Committee was not enough and that there should be another opportunity for the House to consider whether, in the event, the Postmaster-General needs to exercise the power under Clause 3(2).

It is argued that, despite the Bill, my Department will succeed in winkling out the hard core of evaders only by an increasing campaign of house visiting and that it will have to recruit part-time staff for this purpose. It is contended that, as this campaign is required anyway, it should be started at once and that, along with the deterrent effect of increased penalties, the extent of evasion at present might be so reduced as to make it unnecessary for us to operate Clause 3(2). Further, it is said that an obligation to activate the Clause by Statutory Instrument would afford the House the opportunity to see how the campaign was progressing and that, subject to this, the power under Clause 3(2) should remain a reserve power.

What are the answers to these arguments? In the first place, it is quite unnecessary to write into the Bill such a provision for control, subject to amendment by either House, on the use of these powers. The question whether the power is needed at all is for debate during the passage of the Bill while it is being considered by both Houses. To go over the same ground again when a statutory instrument was made would be quite unnecessary. This case is not one where a power is conferred in such general terms as to require that Parliament should have the opportunity to look at the details when they are spelled out later in regulations. What the House must remember is that this is not delegated legislation. It is all there in the Bill already.

Nor can I accept that the power should be one that was held in reserve until the need to use it could be demonstrated by the failure of other methods. If its mere existence, coupled with other measures against evasion, including the other provisions of the Bill, turns out to be enough, my right hon. Friend and I will be very content. If there is little or no evasion left when the time comes, naturally we shall not ask the dealers to make out lists of all their customers. But licence evaders must realise now that there will certainly be a way of getting at them, not merely when they replace their sets, but by establishing that they already have sets. It is true that we cannot in this way get at all the existing sets. Clause 3(2) will not catch the evaders who bought their sets for cash. But that is no reason for not getting at the others.

I do not want to understate or gloss over the fact that coping with the lists of existing rental cases will require more work by the Post Office. But it must not be exaggerated. It does not all have to be done on one day or in one financial year. A great many evaders can be expected to throw in the sponge on being told by the Post Office that there is every reason to believe that they have sets, when they might have stuck it out if all that the Post Office could say was that we only wondered if they had sets.

Naturally, a number will have to be visited and prosecuted, and there will always be some who even when they have been caught will lapse again, and they will have to be caught again if possible. But the scale of the job is not one that cannot be tackled by the normal staff of the Post Office with some extra effort. The hon. Member suggested that the Post Office would need to employ additional staff on a temporary and part-time footing. I am grateful for the recognition by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) of the excellence of the present Post Office staff—he made this statement in our debate on the new Clause. But I see no need to adopt the suggestion in the Amendment. If this job has to be done I think that it can best be done by the present Post Office staff with only a marginal need for reinforcement.

Therefore, I cannot advise the House to accept the Amendment.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

The Assistant Postmaster-General speaks as though he and his right hon. Friend will remain the Assistant Postmaster-General and Postmaster-General respectively for ever more. I think it is quite likely that if we had them in perpetuity—heaven forbid!—with the regulations and after all the information given to them in Committee, they would use these powers sensibly and with a lot of control. But they are not likely to be there when the powers are likely to have to come into operation. Therefore, the House must view this on the basis of what a new Postmaster-General and Assistant Postmaster-General would do under certain circumstances.

The Assistant Postmaster-General said that the proposal would involve a waste of time. A waste of time to give Parliament information? That is what we ask for. We say that the power shall remain where it is, but that before the regulations are acted on the Postmaster General or Assistant Postmaster-General shall explain to the House that their other efforts have failed so much that the new powers should be put into operation. All that that boils down to is that the Postmaster-General, whoever he is, shall tell Parliament what has happened up to date. It is never a waste of time to report to Parliament on legislation of this kind.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will give sympathetic consideration to the Amendment. He took part in the Committee proceedings and is aware of the onerous task that this provision would place on dealers. They will have to fill in forms and make returns to the authorities. If, for any reason, they do not send in those returns under the principal Act, they will be liable to be dealt with. They will be brought up as law breakers.

If the other measures to deal with people who evade paying their licence fees are working, legislation which would make dealers law breakers should not be introduced. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend have heard this matter discussed in Committee. But other Ministers, after the Postmaster-General and Assistant Postmaster-General have left their present office—perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General will be promoted Secretary of State for Defence; we could do with a new one—will not have had the advantage of hearing this matter debated in Committee and may not be fully aware of the effect that this will have on dealers.

Mr. Stratton Mills

The reply of the Assistant Postmaster-General was disappointing, particularly since he asked himself one question and proceeded to answer another one. His central argument seemed to be that once the provision was in the Bill, it was not necessary for Parliament to discuss the matter again. He missed the argument we are making about subsection (2). The Postmaster-General made it clear in Committee that he was considering these powers as reserve powers. He went on to lay down the rough criteria which he would bear in mind before invoking them.

I gather that these powers would come into operation only once the other powers had been shown to have failed. The hon. Gentleman has tonight not answered our questions and has not given the criteria which would be satisfactory to his right hon. Friend. In other words, if there are 2 million people evading their licence fees, if, in 12 months' time, 1½ million or 1¾ million of them are caught, would the Postmaster-General feel it necessary to invoke these additional powers to catch the remaining small number?

We are discussing massive powers. It is impossible for us to debate them in advance, and it is equally impossible for the hon. Gentleman to speak about them in advance, of knowing the criteria which would operate before invoking them. That is why we want a sort of long stop, at which point we will be able to see whether these powers are necessary. I trust that, between now and the Bill reaching another place, the hon. Gentleman will consider the matter further.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Slater

People who evade paying their licence fees should not run away with the idea that they will not be caught. Every possible attempt, through the operation of this Bill, will be made to catch them. But the answer to the Amendment is that it would be wrong in a future debate—and this is what I was emphasising—to have to go all over again the arguments which we have gone over during the passage of the present Bill. In any case, let it be remembered that after the Bill has become law Members of Parliament would still be able to table Questions. They would still be in a position to ask the Postmaster-General how far evasion had been reduced and whether there was still a need to call for a list of agreements.

I want to say to the hon. Gentleman that this Amendment is incomplete. I really believe that it would create uncertainty because it does not express power to make any regulations connected with the operation of Clause 3(2) of the Bill. The Amendment could, therefore, be construed as meaning that the conditions stated had been satisfied once any regulations under the Bill had been made.

I think, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment seems to be under a misapprehension regarding the attitude of my right hon. Friend in seeking to catch up with those people who have been evading the responsibilities which they ought to meet like anyone else.

Amendment negatived.