HC Deb 12 May 1969 vol 783 cc1034-8
Mr. Ridley

I beg to move Amendment No. 57, in page 13, line 13, after first 'the', insert: 'independent accountants appointed by the'.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that we take, at the same time, Amendment No. 58, in page 13, line 13, leave out 'Minister' and insert 'Parliamentary Commissioner'.

Mr. Ridley

In Committee, we debated what should happen in the event of a dispute as to the amount of money to be paid to the Post Office for performing an uneconomic function. On that occasion, we proposed that the dispute should be adjudicated by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but that suggestion was not acceptable to the Government. We have, therefore, now suggested that the Parliamentary Commissioner should appoint someone to go into the facts and figures to determine the correct amount of subsidy or compensation to be paid to the Corporation in return for performance of an uneconomic service or function.

This is a point of importance in relation to the whole development of nationalised industry policy. The Minister has rightly taken the point and done his best to apply commercial standards, and re-imbursement for departing from them, but if the person who is to decide the amount of compensation is to be the Minister himself, it will be much more difficult for the proper costs to be arrived at and for the Post Office to feel confident in any settlement which is made.

There are two possibilities and I take the example of the telegram system to illustrate them. Let us suppose that it was decided to compensate the Post Office for running the telegram system. It might ask for too big a profit so that it could make easy money out of the subsidy procedure, in which event the Government might well wish to appeal against the sum which the Post Office was demanding. Alternatively, as the Bill stands at present, the Minister could say, "I shall give you only £500,000", which would be far less than the actual loss which the Post Office thought that it was incurring. In either of those cases, it would be wrong if the Minister had the final say. He cannot be the true judge to determine the correct amount when he is the person responsible to Parliament for presenting a Vote for that amount.

Since our debate in Committee I have felt even more strongly that we should have an independent arbiter to decide the correct amount. We need somebody who can employ accountants to find out all the facts and figures, so that a really fair and true assessment can be made. I am sure that the Postmaster-General will regard the principle of the Amendment as sound, and agree that to leave it to the Minister to make the final decision would be unsound.

I do not know who would be the best person to do it. My hon. Friends have suggested the Parliamentary Commissioner, who is certainly impartial. He is neither a servant of the Government nor somebody without status or position. He is a public servant who is not a servant of the Government, and, therefore, he seems a possible candidate. There are very few people who have public standing and, at the same time, are not servants of the Government.

Therefore, the Amendment is a useful vehicle to discuss the principle that the Minister should not be the arbiter. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to accept the Amendment, and to accept that somebody in a similar position to the Parliamentary Commissioner might well be the person to undertake the task.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Stonehouse

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has returned to a theme which was developed in Committee. It discloses a certain misunderstanding about the function of the Minister of Posts after the Post Office Corporation is set up. It is much more appropriate that the Minister and his staff should be responsible for settling any disputes that may arise, although it is most unlikely that there would be disputes of the character referred to.

The policy to be adopted for a publicly-owned industry cannot be considered in the same context as the policy for independent firms. With a publicly-owned authority of this character it is most appropriate that the Ministry of Posts should be the final decider in the case of a dispute about the various services the Post Office may be asked to carry on.

If we had independent accountants, as suggested in the Amendment, it would be a reflection on the overriding powers and responsibilities of the sponsoring Minister. If we have the Parliamentary Commissioner, as suggested in Amendment No. 58, a completely new concept of activity is introduced for the Commissioner, whose functions are strictly related to following up M.P.s' complaints about the actions of Ministers. It would detract from his main responsibility there to give him the responsibilities suggested in the Amendment.

I am not persuaded that there is any advantage in accepting either Amendment, and I ask the House to reject them.

Mr. Stratton Mills

I am sorry that I was not here at the beginning of this debate. We have moved rather faster than I expected.

Judging from the way the Assistant Postmaster-General dealt with the matter in Committee, when he spoke of the problems of having the Comptroller and Auditor General as an independent arbiter, as we had suggested, I thought that he might look favourably at another independent person.

When he replied just now the Postmaster-General used a slightly different point as his main argument. However, this is not a matter on which we should divide, and with the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman who moved it will ask leave to withdraw.

Mr. Ridley

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 59, in page 13, line 17, at end insert 'in Scotland'.—[Mr. Stonehouse.]

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