HC Deb 03 May 1967 vol 746 cc663-75

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [24th April], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

It is most unfortunate that such an important Bill should have to be dealt with at such a late hour. On Mondays and Wednesdays we must regard this as being a late hour, under our new procedure. It is unfortunate that those who manage Government business should have put us in this extraordinary position. We have been discussing other important matters since 10 o'clock this morning. The Leader of the House has assured us that the advantage of morning sittings is that matters such as this Bill can be carefully considered in the cool, clear light of dawn, when we can give them very thorough consideration.

The right hon. Gentleman now says that morning sittings are going very well. The Government have so much time—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must come to the Bill to which the House is being asked to give a Second Reading.

Mr. Kimball

I am coming rapidly to it, Mr. Speaker. I was regretting the circumstances under which we find ourselves discussing it at such a late hour.

When we were cut short in our earlier discussion I was asking the Postmaster-General how the private enterprise post office service in Hull would fit in with the nationalised enterprise which we are now advancing. Will customers in Hull be able to obtain exactly the same service as customers in Gainsborough and other users of this data processing service?

Most of our constituents take a suspect view of the fact that the Post Office should spend such a large sum of money promoting this Bill when, for all normal people, the Post Office is providing a more inadequate and inefficient service—especially the telephone service—than for a long time. I find a marked lack of enthusiasm for a Bill which will use up more land lines and make our tele- phone service even more inadequate. I know that the Minister will say that one of the difficulties when the Post Office introduces a new system is that manufacturers get behind with their contracts. That is always the Minister's argument at Question Time.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about the equipment and new machinery associated with the Bill. As I understand, when the Post Office places a contract the terms of that contract are simply that 85 per cent. of the equipment is to be manufactured in factories in the United Kingdom. A contract may be placed with a big international company, and if such a company receives a contract only 15 per cent. of the material used can be brought in to complete the job. Does this figure represent 15 per cent. of the delivered price or of the cost price? If the manufacturer goes beyond this figure, will he then be expelled from the neat little Post Office "ring" in which all contracts are given? One has to be a member of the Joint Electronic Research Committee to land a Post Office contract.

Many of the new computers and the machinery which will be needed will have to be made in Europe and we hope that they will come here without having to pass a tariff barrier. I want to know whether this 15 per cent. of the contract being manufactured abroad is binding on the manufacturers, or is purely mythical.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham)

This is the third of a series of debates on a short Bill which was supposed to be un-controversial, but which has proved a good deal more controversial than the Government could have expected. The further we examine it, the more objections we see to it. There is a good deal of mischief in the Bill, some actual and apparent and some potential.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology, on 24th April, gave two reasons for the Bill: first, economies of scale; and, second, the need for inter-communication between sources and users of information and between data processing systems. It would be foolish to deny that there are advantages to be gained in economies of scale from the use of large computers, particularly for repetitive operations. I do not want to enter an argument about comparison between large or small computers, because it is unrealistic to suppose that there are not real advantages on either side. Hon. Gentlemen on both sides would recognise that small computers made, for example, by Elliott Automation and used in data processing machines. have such advantages.

However, a grid system of computers is developing in this country in any case and it would be surprising if it were not. It is the technique of development in the United States and Europe. The Flowers Committee Report on the use of computers in universities recommended that the cheapest way of overcoming the shortage of computer power was the use of large machines. I have always been in favour of a national grid based on a multi-access system.

Three weeks ago I tested such a system in Phoenix, Arizona, and operated a new multi-access system with 30 terminal devices attached to it. It is impossible to operate such a system without being impressed by the fact that this is the way in which future development is likely to progress. The development of research in computer technology and the new methods of research in parallelism lead one to believe that access to large computers will be even more rapid in its progress than we have observed so far.

I cannot do anything but welcome a Government multi-access system covering Government requirements alone. Indeed, this is one of the principle methods of improving the speed and quality of the Government's own statistical services which, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology knows, is a very urgent requirement. No one knows that better than he, with his service on the Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Government's statistical services. If, therefore, the Post Office were to offer to other Departments of State an integrated computer system in which the computers themselves were compatible one with the other instead of as it now is, that would be one thing, but that is not at all the system which is now proposed in this Bill.

Under the Bill, the Post Office will be empowered to offer a computer service which would be in direct competition with computer service agencies. I have not noticed that there is any particular shortage of those agencies. In any case I have an aversion to taxpayers' money being used in an enterprise which all the experience of nationalised services shows is bound to come off second best in competition with private enterprise. There is no evidence that the competition in which the Post Office will be engaged will be fair.

The computer service which the Post Office will run will necessarily depend on the telephone services which only the Post Office can offer, whether these services are offered to the Post Office or to outside agencies. We want to hear what kind of assurance the Government can give that the telephone services of the G.P.O. will be as readily available to outside agencies in every instance as they will be to the Post Office under the Bill. Is it suggested that there should be no difference in the quoted delivery? I cannot conceive that such a situation could occur, because in this case the Government's prestige is at stake. It is impossible to believe that the Post Office computer users would not be favoured by the Post Office telephone service.

Even if a formula could be devised to cover that point there still remains the question whether the £9 million envisaged to be spent under the Bill can be best spent in this direction. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price), on the earlier occasion during this Second Reading debate, referred to the appalling breakdown in telecommunication services from which the country is still suffering. I had occasion to ring up the Ministry of Technology two months ago and while I waited for an answer I counted the number of pips I heard before someone answered the telephone. I got to 100 which must be a record for any Ministry, but which, for the Ministry of Technology, was particularly fitting.

As my hon. Friend said, this money could better be spent in improving existing telecommunications services. I have a particular recollection of a large insurance company in my constituency which installed a large computer system wholly dependent on lines to be provided by the G.P.O. and those lines were not forthcoming in time and were very inefficient in service.

Would not this £9 million be better spent in training systems analysts? In the United States I saw an estimate that by 1970 645,000 people would be trained in data processing. According to Lord Snow, in a speech in another place about a year ago, there were about 6,000 systems analysts and 15,000 would be required by 1970. On any comparison whatever, the number of people engaged in learning data processing in this country is far too small for the task ahead.

Further, will the Post Office be competing on level terms with outside agencies? It is transparently clear that it will not. It will either get money from the Treasury or be able to borrow on terms available only to the Government at a much cheaper rate than that available to outside agencies. This is confirmed by the White Paper on the Reorganisation of the Post Office, paragraph 26 of which says: The Corporation will borrow long term exclusively from the Minister". Obviously, no outside agencies will have that kind of advantage.

We are then told that Post Office computers are to be written off over 10 years. I do not know of any other agency that writes off its machines in that period of time. I do not believe that any other agency could afford to do so. It is clear that the Post Office, if it writes off its machines in that period of time, will be able to provide a very much cheaper service than is now the case. I have questioned a number of outside agencies about the length of time in which they write off their machines, and in no case is it as long as 10 years. These are in themselves sufficient grounds for opposing the Bill.

The second reason which the hon. Gentleman gave for the Bill was the need for intercommunication between the sources and users of information. It is improbable that most hon. Members have read the Fabian pamphlet written by the Parliamentary Secretary less than two years ago. I cannot recommend it as particularly good reading now, because I cannot believe that anyone could think that it was practicable policy. I think that the hon. Gentleman himself, during the course of discussions in his Select Committee Sub-Committee on the Government's statistical services, had his own pet theories exploded by the comments of such people as Professor Cairncross and Sir Alexander Johnstone.

At any rate, the theory is that it is possible to evolve a model system of the economy upon which can be devised a national plan. I mention this because, curiously enough, under the Bill powers will be given to a Government undertaking to establish a computer system with links with every firm in the land. This is horrifying in its implications.

I want to quote one or two remarks which the hon. Gentleman made in his pamphlet. I apologise to him for not notifying him that I would do this, because I am sure that he would have liked to remark on them at the end of the debate. These remarks now appear to be so extraordinary. The hon. Gentleman said this in the pamphlet: But there remains a conflict of interest between the firm and a wider interest"— which, presumably, means the public interest, or what the hon. Gentleman defines as the public interest— a range of instruments should be available to the planners—negative and even positive injunctions could be used in defined circumstances. What charming powers these must be. And how undefined!

On another page of the pamphlet the hon. Gentleman says this: Production functions would be available for each establishment. I wonder what kind of production function would have been given to the Beatles, who have just earned £20 million worth of export business in the United States. It is beautiful symmetry which the hon. Gentleman puts forward in his pamphlet, the devising of a model, the construction of a national plan round it, and then, through the system devised, giving access to computers to every firm in the country, and the Government have the ability to tell those firms and those engaged in the business of those firms precisely what they should be doing, under severe penalties. I mention that as what I believe to be, not an example of what could happen, but as some of the thoughts which still run through the minds of hon. Members opposite.

The Government have learned a great many lessons since they came to power, much to this country's cost. But it is still possible for them to neglect the way in which things are run and even to fail to observe the experience of other countries, and the failure of planning even in Communist countries and other countries which have developed their systems round the planning concept. They will still, I am sure, continue to object to the principal motive for efficiency in business, the profit motive, and I do not believe that we shall—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a wide debate, but not so wide as to traverse all the differences between the two major political parties.

Mr. Hordern

Then I shall shorten my remarks on those differences, Mr. Speaker, saying only that I do not believe that there can ever have been an Administration with so little practical experience of management in business and industry, or one which has interfered so much with business and industry. It is this kind of concept which hon. Members opposite are now putting forward, in a Bill seemingly as harmless as this, which leads us to one conclusion only, that we must oppose it at once.

10.6 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Dr. Jeremy Bray) rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentlemen wishes to address the House again, he must have the leave of the House.

Dr. Bray

If I may have the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I shall speak very briefly, not venturing into the wider realms on which you called the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Hordern) to order bin: dealing merely with the specific questions asked by the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken.

I can trace no reference whatever to the 85 per cent. rule alleged to exist by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball). There is no ring in the provision of computer equipment, and neither is one likely to develop.

The hon. Member for Horsham raised the question of the pay-off from large

computer applications. The Post Office is securing a return of from 12 to 40 per cent. on its existing computer installations, through good management, and there is no reason to think it would fail to secure equally useful returns on the National Data Processing Service.

The hon. Member for Horsham advocated the development of a national grid. If he will look into the information flow problems involved, he will realise that the use for Government statistical services is tiny—and, of course, the pamphlet to which he referred has nothing whatever to do with a national computer grid or anything of that sort at all.

On the question of competition with bureau services, my own worry would be that, with the National Data Processing Service, the cost of establishing a private computer bureau will become so small that it would be no more than the cost of writing one or two programmes and engaging a couple of punch operators, so that we should be likely to have absolutely cut-throat competition between small very active private bureaux—some of which, no doubt, would do very well, while others might have standards of doubtful value to offer to customers—and in selling their services, they would perhaps, try to take advantage of the reputation of the Post Office.

Clearly, this is a commercial possibility which would have to be watched simply to safeguard the public. But I see no likelihood whatever of a monopoly situation developing in the use of computers or in the provision of computer services. Quite the contrary.

Hon. Members opposite have not failed to be struck by at least some aspects of the possibilities opened by the Bill. I assure them that the reaction of people in the computer world to whom we have spoken is one of great interest and anxiety to exploit the exciting technical and commercial possibilities which the Bill offers.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes, 203, Noes 123.

Division No. 335.] AYES [10.10 p.m.
Abse, Leo Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Bidwell, Sydney
Albu, Austen Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice Binns, John
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Bagier, Cordon A. T. Bishop, E. S.
Allen, Scholefield Barnes, Michael Blenkinsop, Arthur
Anderson, Donald Beaney, Alan Booth, Albert
Archer, Peter Bence, Cyril Braddock, Mrs. E. M.
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Heffer, Eric S. Oswald, Thomas
Brooks, Edwin Henig, Stanley Padley, Walter
Brown, Rt. Hn. George (Belper) Hooley, Frank Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Hooson, Emlyn Palmer, Arthur
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W) Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Pardoe, John
Buchan, Norman Howarth, Robert (Bolton, E.) Park, Trevor
Buchanan, Richard (G'gow, Sp'burn) Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)
Cant, R. B. Howie, W. Pavitt, Laurence
Carmichael, Neil Hoy, James Pearson, Arthur (Pontypridd)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Huckfield, L. Pentland, Norman
Coleman, Donald Hunter, Adam Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)
Concannon, J. D. Jeger, Mrs. Lena (H'b'n&St. P'cras, S.) Prentice, Rt. Hn. R. E.
Conlan, Bernard Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Price, Christopher (Perry Barr)
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West) Price, Thomas (Westhoughton)
Crawshaw, Richard Kelley, Richard Price, William (Rugby)
Crossman, Rt. Hn. Richard Kenyon, Clifford Probert, Arthur
Cullen, Mrs. Alice Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham) Rhodes, Geoffrey
Dalyell, Tam Kerr, Dr. David (W'worth, Central) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Robertson, John (Paisley)
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Lawson, George Robinson, W. O. J. (Walth'stow, E.)
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Leadbitter, Ted Rodgers, William (Stockton)
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Lee, John (Reading) Roebuck, Roy
Davies, Ednyfed Hudson (Conway) Lestor, Miss Joan Rose, Paul
Davies, Harold (Leek) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Ross, Rt. Hn. William
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Lomas, Kenneth Rowlands, E. (Cardiff, N.)
Davies, Robert (Cambridge) Loughlin, Charles Ryan, John
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Lubbock, Eric Short Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-tyne)
de Freitas, Rt. Hn. Sir Geoffrey Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)
Delargy, Hugh MacColl, James Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Dell, Edmund Silverman, Julius (Aston)
Dempsey, James Macdonald, A. H. Slater, Joseph
Dewar, Donald McGuire, Michael Small, william
Dobson, Ray McKay, Mrs. Margaret Snow, Julian
Doig, Peter Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Spriggs, Leslie
Driberg, Tom Mackintosh, John P. Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Dunnett, Jack McNamara, J. Kevin Swain, Thomas
Ellis, John MacPherson, Malcolm Taverne, Dick
English, Michael Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Thomas, George (Cardiff, W.)
Ennals, David Mahon, Simon (Bootle) Tinn, James
Ensor, David Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Tuck, Raphael
Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) Manuel, Archie Urwin, T. W.
Faulds, Andrew Mapp, Charles Varley, Eric G.
Finch, Harold Marsh, Rt. Hn. Richard Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Maxwell, Robert Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Mellish, Robert Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Mendelson, J. J. Wallace, George
Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) Millan, Bruce Watkins, David (Consett)
Ford, Ben Miller, Dr. M. S. Wellbeloved, James
Forrester, John Milne, Edward (Blyth) Whitaker, Ben
Fowler, Gerry Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Whitlock, William
Calpern, Sir Myer Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Wigg, Rt. Hn. George
Gardner, Tony Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Garrett, W. E. Morris, John (Aberavon) Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Ginsburg, David Moyle, Roland Williams, Clifford (Abertillery)
Gourlay, Harry Murray, Albert Willis, George (Edinburgh, E.)
Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Neal, Harold Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)
Grey, Charles (Durham) Newens, Stan Winnick, David
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley) Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon) Winstanley, Dr. M. P.
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Norwood, Christopher Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A.
Hannan, William Oakes, Gordon Woof, Robert
Harper, Joseph Ogden, Eric Yates, Victor
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) O'Malley, Brian
Haseldine, Norman Orme, Stanley TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mr. Armstrong and Mr. McBride.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N&M) Glover, Sir Douglas
Astor, John Burden, F. A. Goodhart, Philip
Atkins, Humphrey (M't'n' & M'd'n) Clegg, Walter Goodhew, Victor
Baker, W. H. K. Cooke, Robert Gower, Raymond
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Corfield, F. V. Gresham Cooke, R.
Biffen, John Currie, G. B. H. Grieve, Percy
Biggs-Davison, John Dalkeith, Earl of Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)
Birch, Rt. Hn. Nigel Dance, James Gurden, Harold
Black, Sir Cyril d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry Hall, John (Wycombe)
Blaker, Peter Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.) Hall-Davis, A. G. F.
Body, Richard Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Bossom, Sir Clive Eden, Sir John Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.)
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tlc-upon-Tyne, N.) Harris, Reader (Heston)
Brinton, Sir Tatton Errington, Sir Eric Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)
Bromley-Davenport, Lt. -Col. Sir Walter Eyre, Reginald Hawkins, Paul
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Farr, John Heath, Rt. Hn. Edward
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Fortescue, Tim Heseltine, Michael
Bryan, Paul Gibson-Watt, David Hiley, Joseph
Hill, J. E. B. Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles Sharpies, Richard
Hohson, Rt. Hn. Sir John Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Hogg, Rt. Hn. Qu ntin Murton, Oscar Sinclair, Sir George
Hordern, Peter Nabarro, Sir Gerald Smith, John
Hunt, John Neave, Airey Stodart, Anthony
Hutchison, Michael Clark Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M. (Ripon)
Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Nott, John Summers, Sir Spencer
Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Onslow, Cranley Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Kimball, Marcus Osborn, John (Hallam) Taylor, Edward M. (G'gow, Cathcart)
King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Page, Graham (Crosby) Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Knight, Mrs. Jill Peel, John Teeling, Sir William
Lancaster, Col. C. G. Percival, Ian Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret
Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Peyton, John Tilney, John
Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Pike, Miss Mervyn Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
MacArthur, Ian Pink, R. Bonner Vickers, Dame Joan
Maclean, Sir Fitzroy Pounder, Rafton Ward, Dame Irene
Maude, Angus Price, David (Eastleigh) Webster, David
Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Prior, J. M. L. Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Maydon, Lt.-Cmdr. S. L. C. Pym, Fancis Wright, Esmond
Mills, Peter (Torrington) Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks) Wylle, N. R.
Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Younger, Hn. George
Monro, Hector Russell, Sir Ronald
Montgomery, Fergus St. John-Stevas, Norman TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
More, Jasper Scott, Nicholas Mr. Grant and Mr. Kitson.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]
Committee Tomorrow.