HC Deb 29 April 1969 vol 782 cc1278-319
Mr. Hugh Jenkins

indicated assent.

Captain Orr

In that case, the proposal is wholly admirable and I shall support it.

One can think of many other matters on which one would wish to question the Minister. For example, if the Post Office, by using its licensing powers, began discriminating against private local mobile radio schemes and wished to extend its monopoly into this sphere, would I be entitled to ask the Minister why licences were being refused to a group of doctors?

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

indicated assent.

Captain Orr

In that case, the new Clause is equally admirable and I will support it.

In Committee we spoke at length about the monopoly powers of the Corporation and I instanced a variety of cases in which difficulty might occur, including data processing and pipelines. I hope, if the new Clause becomes law, that we shall be able to keep an eye on matters of this kind and question the Minister.

We should not forget that it would be relatively easy for a Minister who did not want to answer Questions to claim that all of these matters came within the day-to-day administration of the Post Office. I do not know how the sponsors of the new Clause would get round that one.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

We are breaking new ground. A body of practice would be established as a result of the activities of the Table Office; but certainly a greater range of possibility would exist if the new Clause were accepted than is the case with existing corporations.

Captain Orr

I hope that that will be so, although it is a forlorn hope. I put some better propositions in Committee. I regret that the hon. Member for Putney did not support me then. A forlorn hope is better than no hope, and I will, therefore, support his proposal.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Will not the words … other than those of day-to-day administration take the steam out of the new Clause and reduce the ability of the new Minister to answer Parliamentary Questions to the ability which Ministers at present have in respect of other nationalised undertakings?

Most other undertakings either produce or manufacture. Different Questions will arise through the operation of this Corporation, because the new Post Office will be providing consumer services, involving the organisation of mail, the telephone service and other essential items in the lives of every citizen. One cannot, therefore, make a strict comparison between those sort of services and the functions performed by other publicly-owned basic industries.

It would appear that if one were anxious to raise a Question under the present Clause one would ask for a general direction. It could be illogical and in some cases foolish, but it would be done so that the Question could be accepted by the Table and a supplementary question could be asked. I do not think the proposed Clause helps very much. I might wish to raise a Question about mail from a soldier in Cyprus, who asked that it should be delivered intact to a constituent, being interrupted. I would not be able to ask a Question about that under this Clause.

Once we indulge in the extension of enterprise there is a lack of public accountability whether we like it or not. We are giving the Executive more power and still more power. The danger is the growth of the Executive and the development of remote control.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss on this Clause the growth of the Executive, except so far as it can be checked by the Clause itself.

Mr. Dempsey

That is true, Mr. Speaker, but this Clause would mean that I would no longer be able to ask Questions, for example, about the development of delivery of 4d. mail as I can at the moment. We are giving more power to the Executive whether we like it or not. This is disturbing and it makes it more difficult to bring about a democratisation of certain services administered from this House. It is on those lines that the Bill should develop. If I thought this Clause was necessary I would be happy to support it, but, like the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), I have doubts about it.

Mr. Driberg

It is better than nothing.

Mr. Dempsey

It may be argued that it is better than nothing, but I cannot see any great difference between the Clause and the existing opportunity afforded to hon. Members to put Questions about the nationalised industries.

If I have to ask for a general direction, whether it be the coal, steel or electricity industry, or to get to know something about the operation of the new Post Office Department, I cannot see that there would be any difference in practice. I am expressing my views which are based on apprehension. The apprehension is lack of democratisation in administering services from this House. This is to be deplored and regretted. I hope my right hon. Friend will try to give us some hope that he intends to introduce a greater degree of public accountability for this service than that which operates for the others at present.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

This little debate on the new Clause seems to me to be a considerable Parliamentary occasion. I have been much moved by the words of the proposers of the new Clause in looking back through the history of other nationalised corporations, and regretting what has been done in allowing the House to be deprived of its right to inquire into publicly-owned corporations to any degree. The hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) expounded this with great ability, and I heartily endorse his sentiments.

The constituents whom I have the honour to represent are quite unable to understand how it is that a Member of Parliament should not be allowed to inquire on their behalf into the maladministration, mistakes or whatever that go on in the corporations already nationalised. Without being patronising, I would say that the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have seen the light on this matter. I could not sufficiently praise their courage in doing so, especially on a day when the Whips will be replaced by scorpions. I give them my warmest support, and again commend their political courage in putting the new Clause forward.

But I join other hon. Members in questioning why they did not go the whole distance and include day-to-day business. I suppose that they were got at even by the relatively easy régime that has existed on the other side of the House until now, and therefore flinched from including it.

I am convinced that the House will come to regret it most bitterly if the Government do not take the opportunity so ably provided for them as a partial get-out from the awful jam Governments, Oppositions and hon. Members always find themselves in when they set up a nationalised corporation. I plead with the Minister to allow the new Clause to be accepted. I know that it goes against the doctrines that have ruled hitherto in the party opposite, but many doctrines that hitherto applied to the Labour Party have been abandoned in the past few years, and this is one which would be unwept if it were abandoned. I plead with the Government to accept the new Clause because I believe that every Member of Parliament and every voter sincerely wants this to happen.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Poplar)

I shall not comment on what the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) said about Whips and scorpions, except perhaps to remind him that in the original which he had in mind the threat to chastise with scorpions turned out in practice to be an empty one.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss Rehoboam in this context.

Mr. Mikardo

I humbly accept your correction, Mr. Speaker.

The hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) asked what the purpose of the new Clause is. My answer, in the hallowed phrase, is that its purpose is the avoidance of doubt, because all that it seeks to do is to apply to the new Corporation the answerability to the House which applies to every existing public Corporation.

Now I have an answer to the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham and my hon. Friend the Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), with whose speech I largely agree, who wanted to know why we put in the phrase … other than those of day-to-day administration. If we had not, we should have been asking for a greater degree of accountability to the House on the part of the new Corporation than is given to it, with the agreement of both sides of the House, by the Railways Board, the Steel Corporation, the Gas Council and all the rest. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] I agree—why not?

10.30 p.m.

I have never believed in autonomous public corporations and I am not being wise after the event. I opposed the thing from the first stage in 1942, when the concept was first delivered, fathered by Herbert Morrison out of the body of the General Council of the T.U.C., or vice versa—it is not for me to say who was the father or the mother. But between the two they hatched it up and sprang it on the Labour movement, and I have opposed it since then.

Nevertheless, both Labour and Conservative Governments since then—and this House without real demur—have accepted that the nationalised industries should be run by public corporations with a certain degree of autonomy which included relieving them of the obligation of having to account through the Minister to this House for their day-to-day administration.

I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie in that I would be happier if the words he referred to were left out. But if they had been my right hon. Friend could well have said two things. First, he could have asked, "Why are you asking that this Corporation should be more answerable than the House has ever demanded of other corporations?" It would have been a good question and difficult to answer. Secondly, he could have said, "If you include answerability to the House on day-to-day administration you will gravely interfere with the ability of the Corporation to operate on a commercial basis." That I would not have been so quick to accept, but it is precisely what the House has always accepted.

Therefore, if these words had been omitted, my right hon. Friend could easily have demolished the new Clause and, of course, we do not want him to demolish it, so we included them in order to make crystal clear that we want the Corporation to be responsible to the House, although no more and no less than the British Railways Board, the British Steel Corporation, the National Coal Board and the other corporations.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The hon. Gentleman may be making it difficult for the House later on. Does he suggest that, if new Clause 6 is not accepted but voted down, we shall not be able to ask Questions of the same type as in the case of the other corporations? If he is going to accept that in order to get the Clause through, we might be more inhibited later on than we would be otherwise.

Mr. Mikardo

The hon. Gentleman has, characteristically, anticipated the point. If all we are seeking to do by this new Clause is to lay down for the Corporation what has grown up by custom and practice and the gentle dictates of the Table to be the behaviour of the House towards the other corporations, and if we are doing no more than apply to this new Corporation what applies to the others, hon. Members may well ask, "Why do we have to spell it out in words?" They could also argue that, if the new Clause had never been introduced they could have continued their practice in every way.

My answer to that is simple. We do not even know yet what Minister is going to be the sponsoring Minister for this Corporation. We do not know whether he is going to be in this House or in another place. We do not know whether, in the default of the thing being spelt out, someone might not try to read something in the Bill which would give ground for a lower accountability of the Corporation to the House than the other corporations have got.

That was why we spelled it out, for the avoidance of doubt. The original series of nationalisation Acts of which, in respect of relations between the Corporation, the Minister and Parliament, this is a pretty faithful copy, were not clearly written—that is the series from 1940 to 1950. Looking at those Acts we will not find a clear or complete acceptance of the matters hon. Members can press a Minister on. The very term "day-to-day administration" is pretty imprecise.

What has happened in the last 20 years is that in their wisdom, various Speakers have given advice, and the Table has built up a good body of case law, amended from time to time. Some Questions are now admitted to Ministers about public corporations which would certainly not have got past the Table in 1951 or 1953. Like all good laws, the administrators have sensibly varied and amended it to keep up with the needs of the times. We have now reached the situation when a lot of Questions are asked about what might even be called day-to-day administration in the public corporations, and we get away with it.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that Questions may be asked but they do not often get answered?

Mr. Mikardo

My experience, which is longer than the hon. Gentleman's, is that most Questions are answered if the Member who asks them is persistent and clever enough to ensure that he gets an answer. That applies to some hon. Members; I do not know whether it applies to the hon. Gentleman. We get a lot of these Questions on the Order Paper, and the House gets a lot of information about the administration, including some aspects of day-to-day administration. As is the way here, we have rubbed along and found a good practical modus operandi. We do not entrench too far upon the limits of order and the Ministry does not entrench too far in its claims of invulnerability for a public corporation.

We are seeking to see that the Post Office shall be no different from the Coal Board or the British Steel Corporation in that regard. If anyone asks, "Why spell it out?" it is for the avoidance of doubt. I hope that this deals with those like my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie who think that we have not gone far enough. I rather suspect that my right hon. Friend thinks that we have gone too far—there is a little niggle at the back of my ear lobe which leads me to think that he will not accept the new Clause.

If he does not it can only be because he thinks it goes too far. It would not surprise me if he said that the Government cannot accept it because they cannot tie the hands of the Corporation, they cannot do anything that will prevent it doing its job as a good commercial organisation. If he says that, my question is: how does the British Steel Corporation carry out its job as a good commercial organisation, because it is subject, no more and no less, to the same Parliamentary accountability as is contained in the new Clause? How does the Coal Board operate as a commercial organisation?

Any attempt to resist the new Clause would be an attempt to create a greater freedom from public accountability for this Corporation than for any other corporation. That being so, whilst I hope that my prophecy, not for the first time, turns out to be wrong and that the Minister will accept the new Clause, if he does not do so, I hope that my hon. Friends will press it as hard as they can.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

The new Clause has furnished the crucial debate of the whole Bill, and has attracted some notable contributions, particularly from my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Birch), the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), whom we are glad to see back, and not least the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo). The hon. Gentleman, whose expertise on the nationalised industries is unique in this House, told us that he disapproved of autonomous corporations, but in doing so he gave me the feeling one has when reading an article in one of the juicier Sunday papers on the terrible conditions of vice to be found in certain quarters of the world. There seems to be a parallel between the hon. Gentleman's deep and abiding interest in the nationalised industries which cancels his dislike, and the way in which the reporter on the seamy side of Singapore is able to stifle his natural instincts of disgust to bring the good news to those at home.

I am puzzled by the Clause because, if we accept it, I wonder whether all our labours on the Bill in this House, going back for many months, and for years with the Post Office, have any value. Why bother to change the Post Office into a public corporation? What is the advantage, unless we attract to its service the sort of people whom autonomous corporations are now seeking to employ and to whom they are offering great rewards?

The Postmaster-General described himself as being the chief executive of the Post Office for the time being. The time will come when he will become Chief Whip and someone else will have to do the job, and a reasonable solution would be to have somebody who did it on a semi-permanent basis.

I cannot help thinking of the evidence which the hon. Member for Poplar was so active and industrious in getting and which formed the basis of the main report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries last year. In Committee I quoted the evidence of Lord Heyworth, an eminent businessman and Chairman of Unilever Ltd., given before an earlier Select Committee but quoted in paragraph 786 of Cmnd. 371: If people came to look at everything I did in a year after the events, the shareholders would be horrified because they would see that sonic of my decisions were quite wrong. The more I felt that someone was looking over my shoulder all the time and was going to examine these things at any time later, the less I would be inclined to take a decision, the less decisive I would become, and pretty well certainly the less good would be the results."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 4th March. 1969; c. 971.] 10.45 p.m.

There has been much talk by the sponsors of the new Clause about public accountability. It was in that spirit that my hon. Friends and I moved during the Committee stage an Amendment suggesting that what was desirable was an efficient audit of the Post Office. I believe that if our Amendment had been accepted, a high degree of public accountability would have been attained, and we should not at this late stage be seeking to reintroduce it by a form of words which, whatever else it is, is certainly unacceptable to the Parliamentary draftsman.

If one wants accountability, I do not think Question and Answer in the House of Commons produces the sort of accountability which is of any real use. It simply discourages from taking executive posts in the organisation the sort of people whom the Postmaster-General is seeking to attract.

The hon. Member for Poplar made the point that acceptance of this Clause would put the Post Office on an exact par with the other nationalised industries and that they would have to furnish as much as or as little information as the other nationalised industries have to furnish. I feel that we get a reasonable amount of information on the other nationalised industries. It was felt that the desire to make the Post Office, a public service, into an autonomous corporation was partly based on the feelings of Lord Heyworth which I have quoted that Members of Parliament were breathing down the back of his neck.

I find myself in the difficult position that I have found the hon. Member for Poplar an admirable chairman. I follow his views closely, and on the whole he is probably right. If the effect of the Clause is simply to put the Post Office on a par with the other nationalised industries, it would be right to support the Clause. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is sensitive—whether in the lobes of his ears, I do not know—to the noises which are made behind him, but I would encourage his hon. Friends to press on with their Amendment. It will certainly get substantial support from this side of the House. I feel that it might have the result of putting on the Statute Book something which, however good the Minister's intentions, the Parliamentary draftsman would not wear.

Mr. Molloy

The new Clause touches upon a fundamental principle of public ownership as we on this side of the House understand it: that an industry which has been taken into public ownership, or created directly by the State, should at all times be accountable to the House.

My hon. Friends for Barking (Mr. Driberg) and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) have outlined the discussions which went on for many years in the Labour Party. I have always supported the view which they have advanced, which in those days we used to call the Bevan form of public ownership, as opposed to the Morrison form of public ownership. We should take the view of Aneurin Bevan that any form of public ownership should have the maximum accountability to the House of Commons, to the people whom this House represents. I still think that this is a very valid argument.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should the House not have the attention of the Postmaster-General on a particularly interesting speech, rather than that he should be planning when to close the debate?

Mr. Molloy

I am grateful for the intervention. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take notice of it because I have something to say in a few moments which is particularly relevant to his conscience.

It is on this issue of public ownership that so many of us feel strongly. We have had divisions of opinion on both sides in Committee. Hon. Members opposite have rushed to our assistance to ensure that there is proper public accountability for the nationalised industries. At the same time, they consider that there should not be too much investigation into the activities of the great monopolies. We on this side of the House have always argued that a great industry in private hands which forms a massive monopoly is anti-democratic. But the same can be said of such a monopoly if it is taken into public ownership and there is no accountability.

As I see it, the consultative councils have been pretty hopeless, and if my right hon. Friend proposes to argue later on that something similar is to be established in respect of the Post Office he need not bother, because what has been done along these lines in other industries has been a complete failure—[Interruption.] Before hon. Gentlemen opposite cheer too loudly, let me remind them that, while they approve of public accountability in the House of Commons, they are not too sure about appointing a number of Ministers to effect public accountability. They even oppose the principle of giving the responsibility to my right hon. Friend or his equivalent when the changeover occurs. They fall into the trap of complaining about the powers of those whom they call faceless civil servants but not being prepared to agree to Ministers being appointed to ensure that a public industry is accounted for properly in this House.

I must support the new Clause unless my right hon. Friend's explanation satisfies me that what is envisaged in it will take place when the Bill is finalised in any event. In reply to a similar debate in Committee, my right hon. Friend said: There will also be ample opportunity for Members to raise Questions on the Floor of the House, and these will be answered in the same way as that in which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power, for instance, or the Minister of Transport replies on the Floor of the House. I do not think that hon. Members need have any doubt at all that Members of the House of Commons will find some way if they have serious points to raise on behalf of their constituents, of cross-examining the Ministers responsible. That will continue to be the case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 3rd December, 1968; c. 138.] I go along with what my right hon. Friend said in that observation, but I am at variance with him when he speaks of hon. Members finding some way of questioning Ministers, because I do not think that is satisfactory. A straightforward method by which Ministers are answerable to the House should be clearly laid down. I am not sure, for example, that I welcome the idea of a Minister of Power. I would prefer to see a Minister responsible for the gas industry, another responsible for the electricity industry, and so on. I believe that this is the real essence of public accountability.

In this context I part company with many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. While they echo our aspira- tions about the principle of public accountability, many of them in Committee have said that they cannot support the idea of having a number of Ministers to make public accountability effective. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he replies, will be able to go a little further than he did in Committee and say that he will take cognisance of the serious misgivings which have been expressed from this side of the House. I am willing to acknowledge that perhaps some of those misgivings might not have been expressed in such totality if many of my hon. Friends had been aware of the passage to which I have just referred. At the same time, I do not believe that we have ever reached a sensible method of public accountablity in the publicly-owned industries, and we ought not to build into a new industry some of the failings and faults which exist in those industries.

I believe that new Clause 6 will make a great contribution to ensuring that we do not commit some of the errors which we have made in previous forms of public ownership. Here is a first-class opportunity for my right hon. Friend to remove the doubts which many of us have that the public accountability which now exists is insufficient and that future public accountability will take cognisance of those failings by making them good in this legislation for the creation of a new public corporation.

Dr. Winstanley

My hon. Friends and I support the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) on new Clause 6. We are also glad to have the support of the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Sir W. Bromley-Davenport)—

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

But not the boredom of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Dr. Winstanley

The hon. and gallant Gentleman can go out, if he wishes.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

I will. Thank you very much.

Dr. Winstanley

Having been able to exercise such a nice discrimination in the selection of my audience, I will proceed.

Indeed, we also support the observations of the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) about the possibility of going further concerning the accountability to this House of the revised Post Office.

In giving this support, I remind the Postmaster-General, if he needs reminding—which I doubt—that we have supported him on the Bill in general. We have taken the view that the Civil Service kind of establishment, in the ordinary sense, is not a proper body to administer things like the national giro and the data processing service or to run the kind of enterprise which modern systems of telecommunications require. We have at every stage expressed anxiety on this point. We believe that a major problem facing politics in this country, which has not been solved by this Government, by their predecessors, or, I acknowledge, by the Liberal Party, is: how do we organise and administer large-scale enterprises so as to preserve some sense of public service, introduce an element of competition and at the same time, retain some element of public accountability?

This is an immense problem. I say, without hesitation, that the nationalised industries have not answered it. Nor, I hasten to add, have the big private undertakings. Therefore, we must think of some new way of constructing and administering these large-scale organisations. I hope that in carrying out what is in a sense an experiment in the reorganisation of the Post Office, we shall think of new ways of doing this, and, in particular, of new ways of introducing this element of accountability.

11.0 p.m.

In reply to my intervention the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) appeared to suggest that the present system was satisfactory. He said that I had not been in the House for very long, but I must tell him that during the time that I have been in the House he has not been here very often. The hon. Gentleman went further and said that one gets good answers to Questions. I remind the hon. Gentleman that I read HANSARD diligently, and I notice that he has asked very few Questions on this or any subject during the last three years. The hon. Gentleman referred to the arrangements made way back in 1942 by Mr. Herbert Morrison, and no doubt they were as he outlined them, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his knowledge of what goes on now is not as great as mine.

Mr. Mikardo

The hon. Gentleman is learning quite fast. He will eventually learn that there are much more sophisticated ways of getting information from Ministers than by putting down Questions.

Dr. Winstanley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that leads me to my next point. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) said that it was not just a question of Parliamentary Questions, that there were other ways of getting information, and indeed that we ought to preserve certain other rights. My experience has been that where it is assumed that Questions on matters of day-to-day management cannot be answered, Ministers will not answer letters on those matters. I have received many letters dealing with matters relating to the British Railways Board in which I have been told that the Minister cannot deal with the issue I have raised because this is a matter of day-to-day management and not a matter of general policy.

Mr. Mikardo

I have never had such a letter.

Dr. Winstanley

The hon. Gentleman says that, but there have been complaints about this from hon. Members on both sides of the House. If there is a convention about the admissibility of Questions on the Floor of the House, this seems to govern the willingness or otherwise of Ministers to answer queries raised in correspondence and by other means. I accept what the hon. Member for Poplar says as a result of his great experience, his great age and length of tenure in this House, and I shall follow his advice, for which I am grateful, but it is my experience that the degree of accountability to this House of various boards, and the British Railways Board in particular, is inadequate. It may be adequate for the hon. Gentleman, but I do not believe that it is adequate for the House. I believe that the present degree of accountability will not be adequate in respect of the Post Office. I hope that the new Clause will do something to ensure that it is not less adequate than it is in respect of the organisation to which I have referred.

I agree that we ought to go even further than it is proposed to go in this Clause. There is a precedent worth following in the arrangements for answering Questions about the National Health Service. This is one sphere in which we are not inhibited in the kind of Questions that we can ask. I have no reason to believe that this arrangement in any way interferes with the working of the hospitals or the administration of the National Health Service, and I should like to see us following that pattern, which goes further than the proposal of the hon. Member for Putney.

I am surprised to find that my general support for the Clause has been repudiated by some hon. Members on both sides of the House, but it is still there, and I hope that we shall get a favourable reply from the Postmaster-General.

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

I agree with a great deal of what was said by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley). The hon. Gentleman is clearly interested in the nationalised industries. That being so, I am surprised that he does not know that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) is Chairman of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, and that he has put in an enormous amount of work on that Committee and produced with his colleagues some reports which have been invaluable to hon. Members on both sides of the House, even if he has not been in the Chamber to put down Questions as often as the hon. Member for Cheadle would have desired.

Dr. Winstanley

I acknowledge that. I am aware of the debt that we owe the hon. Member for Poplar in this respect. I have read the Select Committee's Reports and benefited from them. I merely commented on the narrow point of my intervention about the admissibility of Questions and the satisfactoriness or otherwise of getting answers to them. That was all.

Mr. Griffiths

I regret that I have not had the benefit of hearing the whole of the debate, but I heard the tail end of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey). I agree very much with what he said. I regret that my hon. Friends who have put down the new Clause have sought to exclude accountability for day-to-day matters.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South whose speech I heard, said that Lord Heyworth found it a disadvantage to have people looking over his shoulder. When the hon. Member quoted Lord Heyworth, I was reminded at once of the late Herbert Morrison, because when I first entered the House of Commons—with my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and other colleagues, on both sides—that was precisely the argument that Herbert Morrison used to persuade us to divorce the public corporations from day-to-day accountability to the House of Commons.

Herbert Morrison said that the managers of the nationalised industries ought not to be looking over their shoulders at Members of Parliament. I remember very well how he said, "We do not want the managers of the nationalised industries to be Civil Service-minded. We want the thrusting, adventurous people who are imaginative." And so we got General Sir Brian Robertson and a whole galaxy of people from the Army, from the Navy or, sometimes, from private industry.

At that time I was inclined to agree with the advocacy of Herbert Morrison, but after a short experience, after nationalisation of the coal industry—

Sir Gerald Nabarro (Worcestershire, South)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Griffiths

—I came to the conclusion that we suffered two acute disadvantages from the system that the Labour Government embarked upon in those days. On the one hand, the nationalised industries were exposed to the misrepresentation of the Press, and sometimes of hon. Members opposite—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) was not here at that time.

Sir G. Nabarro

Yes, I was.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Member did not come until later. He has certainly made up for it since, but he was not here at that time. I regret it, because the place would have been livelier had he been here.

At that time, we realised that the newly-nationalised industries suffered from the disadvantage, on the one hand, of misrepresentation, as I, at least, and some of my hon. Friends saw it, by organs of the Press, and equally, as one learned from one's constituents, by certain bureaucratic practices on the part of a quite low level of manager in the nationalised industries. Therefore, we had twin disadvantages. We could neither expose the lies or misrepresentation about the nationalised industries, nor could we expose the bureaucracy on behalf of our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar asked why we should treat this piece of public ownership differently from the other public corporations. That is not a very revolutionary sentiment. I should have thought that the experience that my hon. Friend has had, along with me, in the House of Commons would have led him to say that we want to go a little further and that we want, indeed, day-to-day accountability.

Thinking about this over the years that I have been in the House of Commons, trying to deal with constituency trivialities, as we all have to deal with them from time to time, affecting nationalised industry, I have realised that it has caused the utmost irritation to our constituents. I am embarrassed at mentioning this, because of its triviality, but some years ago in Manchester the railway management insisted that access to a certain station forecourt would be allowed only to a certain number of licensed taxi drivers in the city who were also licensed by the Railways Board. When those taxis were not on the rank, as frequently happened, passengers arriving in inclement weather, which is sometimes associated with Manchester, had to walk down an unprotected access to the station to try to hail a taxi several hundred yards away. A letter to the Minister did no good; I agree with the hon. Member for Cheadle about that. When I tried that, I was told by the then Minister of Transport that it was a matter of day-to-day administration and that he would pass my letter on to the Railways Board. Similar situations existed in Leeds and Liverpool. A deputation of Members attended upon the head of British Railways and asked him to end this absurdity. Even then, our request was not acceded to.

I was advised that the Minister had taken responsibility in the original Act for a certain old Railway Act. I discovered, because of the Minister's researches and the advice he gave me, that it was possible to table a Question. Though the Table and the Minister had originally said that it was not possible, in the end I tabled a Question. It may have been coincidence and nothing to do with my advocacy or that of hon. Members on both sides who had gone to see General Sir Brian Robertson, but this situation was ended almost immediately. It should have been swept away in a gale of laughter long before that.

What opportunities do hon. Members have, therefore, to deal with what may appear to be trivia but are, in fact, matters of immense importance to constituents? As a Socialist I say that they are of immense importance when considering the relevance of public ownership. That is the political lesson. It is important that people should be made aware of the shortcomings of the system under which hon. Members can raise these matters.

In the early days, we had to try to intervene for a few minutes on the one day of the year when the House wanted to deal with the grand sweep of the whole industry. How absurd it was that we had to deal with trivia on the one day which was set aside for an analysis of the coal industry, for example. Yet that used to be the only opportunity hon. Members had to ventilate these grievances in the House. The system which operates has been a great disadvantage. The sooner the House puts an end to it, the better it will be for the management of the existing nationalised industries and the better we shall be able to represent our constituents.

Mr. Driberg

I am deeply moved by my hon. Friend's speech. I agree with it. As I said earlier, I would rather leave out the last few words of the Clause, but we are dealing with this horrible thing called practical politics. When one is dealing with a Front Bench of good comrades who are also pragmatists, one must try to table something which they are able to accept.

Mr. Griffiths

I well understand how my hon. Friend feels, because he and I have shared these feelings for many years.

11.15 p.m.

Over the years, many people have said, as Herbert Morrison did, that one could not have the nationalised industries exposed to this kind of day-to-day examination. There have been references already to the National Health Service, spending over £1,000 million a year of public money and employing an enormous labour force. Aneurin Bevan insisted—and, presumably, secured Cabinet consent—that it be accountable in every detail to the House of Commons. The National Health Service, what is more, was introduced in an atmosphere of high controversy. The Tories voted against it on Second Reading and Third Reading.

After the Act became operative in 1948, hon. Members opposite put down an enormous number of Questions dealing with trivial matters in the National Health Service, and people said, "Look what happens when Ministers are exposed to this kind of treatment in the House", but, although the motive may have been political, it could properly be argued that hon. Members opposite were also looking after the interests of their constituents. So they were serving two purposes; they were acting as Members of Parliament in the clash of opinion with the party with which they disagreeed, and, co-incidentally, they were also dealing with their constituents' affairs.

After a relatively short time, Questions addressed to the Minister of Health became more serious, and today, although one can still put down a Question for Oral Answer about a trivial detail of the National Health Service, hon. Members do not, in the main, abuse the Order Paper.

I put it to the House, and to my right hon. Friend, who had a radical past, that it would be good for Parliament and good for our democratic processes if the Executive and the people whom the Executive appoints to the management of nationalised industries were exposed to more critical examination on matters of detailed administration which affects the people of this country.

Sir D. Glover

The Postmaster-General must be feeling very lonely, sitting there under a storm of shot and shell from both sides of the House. In the last hour and a half he has heard from no one who did not ask him to accept the new Clause.

I speak on this matter as a convert. I admit that at the time when Herbert Morrison was guiding the House—I was not here—while the first batch of nationalisation Measures were going through in the 1945–50 Parliament, I was a great believer in divorcing the nationalised industries from Parlia- mentary control. But gradually—the one sinner who repenteth is worth more than the ninety and nine—I have become more and more convinced that it is essential for the proper running of these national monopolies, if they are to remain in public ownership, to maintain some day-to-day supervision of their activities on the Floor of the House.

They are by their nature monopolies. The public have no redress elsewhere. People cannot buy electricity or postage stamps somewhere else, so, if there is inefficient service, the only redress open to them is by complaint to their Member of Parliament and through the Member making representations either by Oral Question or by letter to the Minister concerned.

Mr. Ridley

No one has yet pointed out the futility of asking a Question which receives a stone-walling Answer and takes one's constituent no further. Could we not take it further and try a more effective way than Questions of dealing with our constituents' complaints?

Sir D. Glover

I agree. I do not suggest that the present system is ideal. We understand that those who want publicity put down a Question; those who want to solve a constituent's problem write to the Minister about it. Once the Minister has said, "No," in public, one has "had it". But we have that right in many cases, although not in others.

The concept of consultative councils has been a disaster. The sooner they are wound up and the small amount they cost saved, the better. In all the years since nationalisation, I doubt whether they have ever solved one problem. On rail closures, they are only brought in like members of the public at the public inquiries, and not consulted beforehand. So Herbert Morrison's concept that they would protect the public has been proved wrong.

I should like the new Clause to go much further. I do not withdraw my objections to the system, but we must have real accountability to Parliament from all these nationalised industries. The new Clause is the best thing that we could get—I understand why it has been framed as it has—in this very bad Bill. Some hon. Members have not understood the limitations. Under the new Clause, some of the points of the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) will still be outwith the Minister's orbit. The crossed nibs in post offices mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) will still not be among the subjects about which we may question the Minister. What we shall be able to do is ask him why he is opening a new factory to produce the crossed nibs. It is a strange thing that in all my working life I have never been able to write with a Post Office pen: they all have crossed nibs—

Mr. Stonehouse

The hon. Member will find that many post offices today have ball point pens, so there are no longer crossed nibs.

Sir D. Glover

It just shows what happens when one gets conditioned to crossed nibs. I automatically pull out my ball point pen when I go into a post office and do not look for what it supplies.

Mr. Ridley

If my hon. Friend has so much belief in this remedy of asking Parliamentary Questions and thus putting everything right, why has he not asked Questions, as he has been able to do up to now, about crossed nibs?

Sir D. Glover

I am a great believer in free enterprise and I thought that there must be a great free enterprise factory churning out these crossed nibs on a Post Office contract, and I did not want to inhibit its work.

Because of the width of Ministerial responsibility in matters affecting the Post Office, the National Health Service, and so on, one can write to the Minister instead of tabling a Question. I have often been astonished to learn, when I have written to the Postmaster-General about a matter which the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange would call trivial, the reason why a letter has been delayed. The Post Office must have an enormous and expensive policing mechanism for ascertaining this information. The information one gets is history—why a letter has missed a certain post and so on—and it does not guarantee that a letter posted today will reach its destination tomorrow.

How much does it cost to run this policing service? Did the Minister take the cost into account in deciding to establish the Corporation, and will this service continue, despite the cost? Even if the cost is high, this type of accountability is necessary in the public interest, particularly if we are to have national monopolies of this kind, private and public, remembering that in the private sector we have the Monopolies Commission.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Has not my hon. Friend noticed that the battle has been won? It is obvious, from the goings on opposite, that the Government fear that they may be defeated on this issue. I predict that the Postmaster-General has arranged a form of words which will satisfy his hon. Friends. I look forward to seeing how the Government overcome what until a few moments ago might have been an impossible situation for them.

Sir D. Glover

I am encouraged by my hon. Friend's intervention. In recent months back benchers have shown the valuable job that they do in that the Executive can no longer feel confident of getting a Measure through without listening to the voice of hon. Members. There has been a collective voice on this issue. [Interruption.] I appreciate that hon Members want to hear the Postmaster-General's answer to our case—[Interruption]—and at present there is so much noise that I almost cannot hear myself speak.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is my hon. Friend aware that we have been talking about the possible activities of the Government Whip? We were trying to ascertain sotto voce whether he intends to move the Closure on my hon. Friend.

11.30 p.m.

Sir D. Glover

As a result of my hon. Friend's intervention, even more noise is going on, and I cannot hear myself think.

Sir G. Nabarro

More voce than sotto.

Sir D. Glover

I must reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), who said that as a result of our arguments the Government now perhaps had a form of words which would satisfy their supporters. We should be grateful if we could hear them. We have been debating this matter for about two hours. If the Minister had said an hour ago, "I am entirely convinced by the arguments we have heard and we will accept the new Clause", or even if he had said, "We are convinced that public accountability is essential", we should not be debating this matter at half-past 11. The House would have felt that it had done a good job and we could have gone home full of the virtue of feeling that the great British public had been protected as a result of our efforts. But now we shall go home not knowing what was in the great brain of the Postmaster-

General and whether we have convinced him that he should give way to the democratic wishes of hon. Members. Now, hag ridden, he has given no indication of what was in his mind.

Motion made and Question put forth-with, pursuant to the Standing Order (Sittings of the House (Suspended Sittings)), That the Proceedings of this day's sitting be suspended.—[Mr. Fitch.]

The House divided: Ayes 203, Noes 171.

Division No. 178.] AYES [11.30 p.m.
Albu, Austen Fowler, Gerry Mapp, Charles
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Freeson, Reginald Marks, Kenneth
Alldritt, Walter Galpern, Sir Myer Marquand, David
Anderson, Donald Gardner, Tony Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy
Ashley, Jack Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth) Mayhew, Christopher
Ashton, Joe (Bassetlaw) Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.) Gregory, Arnold Mendelson, John
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Grey, Charles (Durham) Mikardo, Ian
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Millan, Bruce
Barnett, Joel Griffiths, Will (Exchange) Miller, Dr. M. S.
Bence, Cyril Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Mitchell, R. C. (S'th'pton, Test)
Bidwell, Sydney Hamling, William Molloy, William
Bishop, E. S. Harper, Joseph Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)
Blackburn, F. Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Haseldine, Norman Moyle, Roland
Booth, Albert Hazell, Bert Murray, Albert
Boston, Terence Henig, Stanley Newens, Stan
Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur Herbison, Rt. Hn, Margaret Oakes, Gordon
Boyden, James Hobden, Dennis Ogden, Eric
Bradley, Tom Hooley, Frank O'Malley, Brian
Bray, Dr. Jeremy Horner, John Oram, Albert E.
Brooks, Edwin Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Orbach, Maurice
Brown, Hugh D, (G'gow, Provan) Howarth, Robert (Bolton, E.) Orme, Stanley
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.) Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, S'tn)
Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & F'bury) Huckfield, Leslie Owen, Will (Morpeth)
Buchan, Norman Hughes, Emrys (Ayrshire, S.) Page, Derek (King's Lynn)
Cant, R. B. Hughes, Roy (Newport) Parker, John (Dagenham)
Carmichael, Neil Hunter, Adam Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hynd, John Pentland, Norman
Coe, Denis Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh) Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)
Coleman, Donald Janner, Sir Barnett Prentice, Rt. Hn. R. E.
Crawshaw, Richard Jeger, Mrs. Lena (H'b'n & St. P'cras, S.) Price, Christopher (Perry Barr)
Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Price, William (Rugby)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.) Probert, Arthur
Davidson, Arthur (Accrington) Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Rees, Merlyn
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West) Richard, Ivor
Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford) Judd, Frank Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Davies, Rt. Hn. Harold (Leek) Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham) Roberts, Rt. Hn. Goronwy
Oaves, Ifor (Gower) Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Roberts, Gwylym (Bedfordshire, S.)
Delargy, Hugh Lawson, George Robertson. John (Paisley)
Dempsey, James Leadbitter, Ted Rodgers, William (Stockton)
Dewar, Donald Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick (Newton) Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)
Diamond, Rt. Hn. John Lee, John (Reading) Rose, Paul
Dickens, James Lestor, Miss Joan Rowlands, E.
Dobson, Ray Lever, L. M. (Ardwick) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)
Doig, Peter Lomas, Kenneth Sheldon, Robert
Driberg, Tom Luard, Evan Short. Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne)
Dunn, James A. Lyon, Alexander W. (York) Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)
Dunnett, Jack Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.) Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich)
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter) McCann, John Silverman, Julius
Dun woody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e) MacColl, James Skeffington, Arthur
Eadle, Alex MacDermot, Niall Slater, Joseph
Edwards, William (Merioneth) Macdonald, A. H. Small, William
Ellis, John McGuire, Michael Spriggs, Leslie
English, Michael Mackenzie, Gregor (Rutherglen) Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John
Ennals, David Mackie, John Taverne, Dick
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Mackintosh, John P. Thomas, Rt. Hn. George
Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) Maclennan, Robert Thornton, Ernest
Finch, Harold McNamara, J. Kevin Tinn, James
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) MacPherson, Malcolm Tomney, Frank
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.) Urwin, T. W.
Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Walden, Brian (All Saints)
Ford, Ben Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Forrester, John Manuel, Archie Wallace, George
Watkins, David (Consett) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.) Woof, Robert
Watkins, Tudor (Brecon & Radnor) Williams, Alan Leo (Hornchurch)
Wellbeloved, James Willis, Rt. Hn. George TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
White, Mrs. Eirene Wilson, William (Coventry, S.) Mr. Neil MacBride and
Wilkins, W. A. Woodburn, Rt. Hn. A. Mr. Alan Fitch.
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Goodhew, victor Onslow, Cranley
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Gower, Raymond Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Astor, John Grant, Anthony Page, Graham (Crosby)
Atkins, Humphrey (M't'n & M'd'n) Grant-Ferris, R. Pardoe, John
Baker, Kenneth (Acton) Gresham Cooke, R. Pearson, Sir Frank (Clitheroe)
Baker, W. H. K. (Banff) Grieve, Percy Peel, John
Balniel, Lord Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Percival, Ian
Batsford, Brian Gurden, Harold Peyton, John
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Hall, John (Wycombe) Pike, Miss Mervyn
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Pink, R. Bonner
Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Gos. & Fhm) Hamilton, Lord (Fermanagh) Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
Biffen, John Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Biggs-Davison, John Harvie Anderson, Miss Pym, Francis
Birch, Rt. Hn. Nigel Hawkins, Paul Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Black, Sir Cyril Hay, John Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Blaker, Peter Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey
Boardm-m, Tom (Leicester, S. W.) Higgins, Terence L. Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Body, nichard Hiley, Joseph Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Hill, J. E. B. Royle, Anthony
Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward Hornby, Richard Russell, Sir Ronald
Bromley-Davenport, Lt.-Col. Sir Walter Howell, David (Guildford) Scott, Nicholas
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Iremonger, T. L. Scott-Hopkins, James
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Sharples, Richard
Bryan, Paul Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Silvester, Frederick
Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N & M) Johnston, Russell (Inverness) Sinclair, Sir George
Buck, Antony (Colchester) Joseph, Rt. Hn. Sir Keith Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)
Bullus, Sir Eric Kaberry, Sir Donald Smith, John (London & W'minster)
Burden, F. A. Kerby, Capt. Henry Speed, Keith
Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.) Kershaw, Anthony Stodart, Anthony
Campbell, Gordon (Moray & Nairn) Kitson, Timothy Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
Carlisle, Mark Lambton, Viscount Summers, Sir Spencer
Chichester-Clark, R. Lancaster, Col. C. G. Tapsell, Peter
Clark, Henry Lane, David Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Clegs, Walter Langford-Holt, Sir John Temple, John M.
Costain, A. P. Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Tilney, John
Crouch, David Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Crowder, F. P. Longden, Gilbert van Straubenzee, W. R.
Currie, G. B. H. Lubbock, Eric Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John
Dance, James MacArthur, Ian Vickers, Dame Joan
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Mackenzie, Alasdair (Ross & Crom'ty) Wainwright Richard (Colne Valley)
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry McNair-Wilson, M. (Walthamstow, E.) Wall, Patrick
Dean, Paul McNair-Wilson, Patrick (NewForest) Walters, Dennis
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) Maddan, Martin Ward, Dame Irene
Digby, Simon Wingfield Marten, Neil Weatherill, Bernard
Drayson, G. B. Maude, Angus Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Eden, Sir John Mawby, Ray Wiggin, A. W.
Elliot, Capt, Walter (Carshalton) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Williams, Donald (Dudley)
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'le-upon-Tyne, N.) Mills, Peter (Torrington) Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Emery, Peter Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Winstanley, Dr. M. P.
Ewing, Mrs. Winifred Miscampbell, Norman Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Eyre, Reginald Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard
Farr, John Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Worsley, Marcus
Fortescue, Tim Murton, Oscar Wright, Esmond
Foster, Sir John Nabarro, Sir Gerald Wylie, N. R.
Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.) Neave, Airey Younger, Hn. George
Gilmour, Sr John (Fife, E.) Nicholls, Sir Harmar TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Glover, Sir Douglas Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael Mr. Jasper More and
Goodhart, Phillip Nott, John Mr. Hector Monro.
  1. QUESTIONS TO THE MINISTER 5,707 words, 1 division