HC Deb 12 May 1969 vol 783 cc1029-34
Mr. Ian Gilmour

I beg to move Amendment No. 48, in page 11, line 16, after 'Minister', insert: 'or it is suggested to him by the Post Office Users National Council'. This Clause relates to the powers of the Minister, and the Amendment relates to the way in which he might use them. It is an attempt to enlarge the functions of the discretion of the Post Office Users' National Council. We freely concede that many people have no faith in users' councils, and there may not be much point in them, but we believe that if such councils are to be they should not be honorific bodies but should have a genuine task to do.

In Committee, we introduced a number of Amendments in an attempt to enlarge the functions of these users' councils. We tried an Amendment on appointment. We tried to enlarge their functions, and we tried to take out the word "may" which, in spite of the direct support of the users' council, the right hon. Gentleman rejected. In fact, on all our Amendments he put the boot in badly and refused to allow the functions of the users' council to be extended. We hope that this attitude will not be taken by him this evening.

The difficulty of the Clause as it stands is that the prejudices of the Minister might well be the same as those of the Post Office and, therefore, undue discrimination might never be brought to the attention of the users' council. In this context, I should like to quote from the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Dobson) who played a prominent part in our Committee deliberations. I know that he is not able to be here today. He said: At one end of the spectrum, we see that the Postmaster-General, or the Minister under the new Bill, can keep a very close watch on the day-to-day affairs of the Post Office. I think that some Ministers will not do that, whereas other Ministers will have an opportunity to do it under the powers set out in the Clause. At the other end of the spectrum, we have a Minister who can sit back and take no decisions which materially affect the way in which the Post Office does its job. It is clear that, except in a few minor cases, he need not be involved in anything at all if he does not wish to become involved."—[OFFICIAL REPORT,Standing Committee D, 28th January, 1969; c. 494.] The hon. Gentleman goes on to say that something should be done about it.

That sums up part of our case on this Amendment, that there may be a lethargic Minister, or a Minister whose whims and prejudices coincide exactly with those of the Post Office, and therefore the Minister does not supply an adequate safeguard to the users' council. This Amendment is very moderate, like all our other Amendments on this subject. The users' council would not be able to intervene merely because there was discrimination. It would have the power and initiative to intervene only if, in its view, there was undue discrimination.

Therefore, this is a very non-militant Amendment. It is merely an attempt in good faith to give some initiative to the users' council, and we hope that without a prolonged debate the right hon. Gentleman will accede to our Amendment.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Slater

I know how interested the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour) and his colleagues were in Committee on the question of the users' council. I have listened with interest to what he has said this evening and I can understand why he and his hon. Friends feel that the words in the Amendment should be inserted into the Clause. It is clearly right that the users' council should be in a position to concern itself with cases where discrimination may occur. I agree that it is most important that its powers to make recommendations to the Minister about such cases should be beyond doubt.

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no need to amend the Bill for this purpose, for under Clause 14(9)(a) the Post Office Users' Council has the duty of considering either matters on which representations are made to it or any matters having to do with the services which it feels should be considered. As the Bill stands, these duties definitely extend to suggestions about the exercise of the powers of the Minister in Clause 11(4).

Therefore, while I acknowledge the interest that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have taken in this matter, as the Bill stands, there is no need to add the words in the Amendment to enable the Council to do this sort of thing or to enable the Minister to act on its suggestion if he thinks fit. Accordingly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Stonehouse

I beg to move Amendment No. 49, in page 11, line 16, after 'Office', insert: is showing undue preference to, or'.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment we can take Amendment No. 50, in page 11, line 17, after 'discrimination', insert 'in favour of or', and Amendment No. 51, in line 17, after 'against', insert 'or in favour of'.

Mr. Stonehouse

Hon. Members who attended the Standing Committee will remember that on 28th January the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) raised the question of the possibility of discrimination being shown, and he proposed that subsection (4) of this Clause should be deleted. I was unable to agree with his suggestion on that occasion, but I undertook to look at the wording in this subsection with a view to making a concession to his point of view.

After consideration, I have now introduced Amendment No. 49 to meet this substantive point which was made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his hon. Friends. This would have the effect of inserting another reason for the Minister providing directions to the Post Office after consultation, and I believe that it meets the points that have been raised. I hope the House will agree that these words are more suitable than the words proposed in Amendments Nos. 50 and 51, and that, therefore, my Amendment will meet with the general agreement of the House.

Captain Orr (Down, South)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has taken the point which I made in Committee, and the words of his Amendment, although they do not precisely meet what I had in mind, go a long way towards it. We recognise that he has endeavoured to be helpful, and I hope that we shall accept his Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 55, in page 12, line 5, after 'year', insert: '(which shall include such particulars as the Minister may, after consultation with the Post Office and with the approval of the Treasury, direct with respect to its activities and those of its subsidiaries so far as consisting in the construction, manufacture or production of articles in that year)'.—[Mr. Stonehouse.]

Mr. Joseph Slater

I beg to move Amendment No. 56, in page 12, line 6, at end insert: (11) The report made under the last foregoing subsection for any year shall set out any directions given under this section by the Minister to the Post Office during that year, except such (if any) as were the subject of notifications under subsection (6) above.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that, at the same time, we look back to Amendment No. 52, in page 11, line 26, leave out subsection (6), which would do the same thing in another way.

Mr. Slater

In Committee, my right hon. Friend conceded the principle that the Post Office Corporation should publish any directions given to it other than those the publication of which would be against the interests of national security. That followed an Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryant), supported by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). My right hon. Friend was unable to accept the precise wording of that Amendment, but we have considered how the principle involved should be reflected in the Bill.

We consider that the appropriate way to do it would be to add the new subsection set out in this Amendment, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

We agree that the Postmaster-General conceded the principle of our Amendment in Committee, and we agree, also, that the Government Amendment now before us is an attempt in good faith to meet the point which we made. Unfortunately, it does not, in our view, meet it because, although it provides that directives should be published, it provides only that they would be published at the end of the year.

It was an important point in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) in Committee that changes of policy should be known at the time. We consider that, if there is a row going on, a row, so to speak, beneficial to the public, between the Post Office and the Postmaster-General, the fact of that row should be made public. In that respect, therefore, the present Amendment does not do what we sought to achieve.

I agree that the provision in the Amendment that directives should be published at the end of the year does not preclude their publication at the time, but, unless we have an assurance that this is the intention behind the Amendment, we shall not consider that our wishes have been adequately met.

Mr. Joseph Slater

We said that we would give every consideration to the case presented by the hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) in Committee, and I pointed out at the time that on occasions when the Post Office was compelled by direction to do something which it could not be persuaded to do by other less formal means, it would wish to disclose at once that a direction had been given in order to make clear where responsibility for its actions lay. In other cases, when the Post Office received, for example, a direction under Clause 11(3) to comply with an international formality, it would again make it known straightaway for the benefit of all concerned. In practice, the giving of directions on major matters is more or less bound to be public knowledge at the time when they are given.

I think that that answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour), and I hope that he now recognises that we have tried to meet his point.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the Assistant Postmaster-General, and I accept his Amendment as a big step forward. However, will he make clear—he could do it in one word—that there would be nothing to stop the Post Office, if it received a direction mid-term between reports, from making that knowledge public simply by telling the Press, by saying, for example, "We have received a direction to institute a postal service to X islands"? It could readily be done by such an announcement.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour) that perfection would be to put the Post Office under a statutory duty to make announcements whenever it received a directive, but I think that the nationalised industries have not shown themselves coy in the past in announcing to the public whenever they have been ordered about. I hope that the Post Office will be no exception in this respect.

Mr. Joseph Slater

I give an assurance that there is nothing to stop the Post Office, if it feels so disposed, from saying that the Minister has requested it to do something.

Amendment agreed to.

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