HC Deb 12 May 1969 vol 783 cc1041-53
Mr. Ridley

I beg to move Amendment No. 61, in page 16, line 18, leave out from 'Council' to end of line 24.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that with this Amendment we take the following Amendments: No. 62, in line 26, leave out from 'Council' to end of line 28.

No. 63, in page 16, leave out line 31.

No. 64, in page 17, line 1, leave out subsection (3).

No. 66, in line 18, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 18.

Mr. Ridley

The effect of this group of Amendments is to remove the users' council for Scotland and the users' council for Wales and Monmouthshire from the Bill. I say at the outset of my brief speech that this is not meant as a hostile gesture to those regions or to their interests, but rather it is intended to facilitate the proper representation of Scots and Welshmen on the council for the nation as a whole.

The Bill allows for there to be a council for Scotland, a council for Wales and a council for Britain as a whole—none, be it noted, for England. In Committee, we had a good debate whether there should be provided a users' council for England, as it were a second-tier authority to match that proposed for Scotland and that proposed for Wales. Although rejecting the suggestion, the Postmaster-General undertook to consider it before Report.

The right hon. Gentleman has kindly written me a letter giving the results of his consideration, which confirm in his opinion that there should not be a users' council for England—either a council for the whole of England or several councils for the different regions of England. All of us agree that if we are to have second-tier councils for England, one would be insufficient, because England is so large and diverse, and that there would need to be a number—six or seven—of English councils.

In his letter he said that he had come to the following conclusion: Frankly, I am opposed to any provision for statutory Regional Councils on these lines". Later in the letter he added: A tier of statutory Regional Councils would complicate the organisation, confuse the customer, and interpose a barrier between the National Council and the local Advisory Committees. It would also cost money which in my view would be better spent on strengthening the resources of the National Council. If it is wrong to set up a second tier of regional councils to apply to England, why is it right to set up a second tier of regional councils to apply to Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Hay

And to Northern Ireland.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Ridley

It seems to me that what goes for England in this respect could well go for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, too.

This is intended to facilitate the representation of all the regions of the British Isles by allowing a much more flexible structure to be established. I argued in Committee, and I argue now, that whatever is the right representation for these different regions, it should be decided upon by the National Council, which undoubtedly will contain some members from each of the regions of Britain. The chairman will undoubtedly take this into account, and he might well decide to set up regional councils for Scotland and for Wales. To prejudge that decision in a statutory form by insisting on these regional councils is to interfere with the sovereign area of decision-making which should rest with the chairman of the National Council.

The Postmaster-General put another useful consideration in his letter of 28th March. He spoke of the existence of the nearly 200 Post Office advisory committees which are scattered all over the country and which do valuable work. It is right for him to suggest that they should continue to be used and should be developed. It would, therefore, clearly be wrong to have a second tier in the structure of users' councils, as is proposed by having one for Scotland, one for Wales and one for Northern Ireland. It would mean that we would have the advisory committee at the bottom of the scale, followed by a regional council, the second tier, followed by the National Council, the third tier. The Bill would result in a three-tier structure of users' representation, and that in a matter like this seems to be over-weighting the bureaucratic machine.

I rest my case most strongly on the view that the decision as to the best organisation for collecting complaints and ensuring that the shyest people get a chance to put their complaints to the National Council is best left to that council itself. Its job is to find out what is wrong and what people are complaining about and to make sure that it has the chance to pick up those complaints. There is much to be said for allowing it to settle its own structure and organisation. It may decide to have special arrangements for Scotland, Wales and for Northern Ireland, and for that matter for regions of England, but it may prefer to rest on the several hundred advisory councils, as is the present intention of the Chairman of the National Users' Council, Dr. Kamme.

We should leave it to him. It seems an odd structure to have a National Council for the whole of Britain, followed by a regional council for Wales and a regional council for Scotland and a regional council for Northern Ireland, but nothing for England, with a third tier of the advisory committees.

I am not skilled in the work of consumer representation and I have considerable doubts about its value, but if we are to have this structure, we should make it as effective as possible, and to try to tie the National Council in advance by insisting on a particular and illogical type of structure would be a mistake.

Mr. Hay

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has argued this series of Amendments with impeccable logic. As logic is not exactly the hallmark of the Postmaster-General and his Department in the context of the Bill so far, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to pay attention to my hon. Friend's remarks.

I speak as one who formerly had some degree of responsibility for and experience of users' councils; in my case they were transport users' consultative councils. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he or his successor as Minister of Posts and Communications will find that the kind of structure which he proposes to erect is a cumbersome sort of apparatus and that we would do far better with one national council to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, with smaller committees much more closely in touch with local feelings, than with a second tier wedged between the two.

I draw attention to some of the powers and requirements which will be involved and which are contained in Clause 14. Once we have one of these councils, we at once have to have payment for the chairman and the members, and provision is made for payment of allowances. There are specific references to the appointment of officers and staff. At once premises have to be taken, often somewhat expensive premises; at once people have to be made aware of the existence of the councils as a channel of communication, and that requires advertising.

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to think again about this matter. There may be certain national susceptibilities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have to be taken into account whenever a national Statute of this kind is prepared, but here we have a perfect case for not requiring a special section of sub-councils of a national council. I hope that the Postmaster-General will agree to the Amendment, because the proposed organisation will not be of any great value but, on the contrary, may cost much money and consume much time and effort which could be more profitably used elsewhere.

Mr. Mawby

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has done the House a service by proposing this Amendment. He has given the right hon. Gentleman and his Department another opportunity to consider this matter.

This is not the first time that this sort of approach has been made to this issue. A similar process has been followed in the Development of Tourism Bill. A National Council is to be set up and the Bill proposed sub-councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for England. But the Committee in that case has added a council for England. With this Bill there would be no purpose in having councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If we are to have a National Council for users which is to do its job properly, its chairman and Members must have sufficient power to be able to decide how to conduct their affairs. If they feel that there are special considerations which require sub-councils to be concerned with Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland affairs, they should be able to set up such sub-councils, I prefer a National Council with such power and I therefore support the Amendment.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Stonehouse

I do not know whether the Amendment has the support of the official Opposition. It will be interesting to know whether the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) supports it. The House is remarkably short of back bench spokesmen on Ulster and of spokesmen on Wales at this stage of our discussions.

Mr. Hay

On a point of order. Is the right hon. Gentleman drawing attention to the fact that not enough Members are present?

Mr. Stonehouse

Sufficient are present to continue the debate. I was simply saying that in the absence of hon. Members from those parts of the United Kingdom it falls to my lot to develop the arguments for having country councils for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

There is a very strong argument for having separate Committees. It is not true, as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) said, that they would cost a good deal of money. Bearing in mind the responsibilities they would have, the amount of money that would be spent on them is minimal. Although I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member's experience with transport users' consultative committees, I do not necessarily accept that there are exact parallels here. For instance, in Northern Ireland there are special problems of postal communications.

I had a special problem raised about the delivery by air of the second-class mail. There are communication problems with Eire that it would only be appropriate for the Northern Ireland Council or committee to deal with. In Wales, there are language questions which it would be appropriate for a country council to consider. It would be burdensome for the National Council to have to consider these subsidiary questions. This is a matter which the House should decide, rather than leave it to a National Council that would, in the nature of things, be dominated by representatives from England.

The National Council would play a very big part in representing consumers from the United Kingdom as a whole, but as England is such a major part, in population terms, it would fill the largest number of seats on the Council, and members representing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales may feel that their interests were not properly looked after. That is why we had the provision in the original Bill for these separate councils. I do not believe that the Amendment is really helpful. It would be bitterly resented in those countries which would lose their councils.

The suggestion that I have set out in correspondence with the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), that Dr. Kamme should have consultations with the chairmen of the advisory committees in each post office region outside the Metropolis is a constructive suggestion, and goes in a direction which would meet many of the points he has raised, rather than taking this dramatic course of cutting out the country councils for Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I hope that the House in its wisdom will reject the Amendment.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Dobson) both thought it logical that if there were to be councils in Scotland and Wales there should be one for England. The right hon. Gentleman has fairly pointed out that most of the full council will be English and, therefore, such a separate council is unnecessary.

As there is a practical argument against this I would respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend who says that a National Council for Scotland and Wales is not necessary. It may be logical, but national feelings are not always a question of logic, and there are certainly a number of matters affecting Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland which do not affect England. For these reasons I hope that my hon. Friend will not press this Amendment.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the council for Wales will have on it a considerable proportion of people who will be able to speak and read the Welsh language?

Mr. Stonehouse

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening in the debate. I had not realised that he was seated behind me when I spoke before. I assure him that it would be our wish that the council for Wales should include Welsh-speaking members, to put their point of view.

Mr. Ridley

If I may reply, by leave of the House, I found the Postmaster-General's reply entirely lacking in logic. He put forward no reason for rejecting my Amendment. Neither did my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour). He had the courtesy to acknowledge that logic appeared to be on my side. All hon. Gentlemen on the Front Benches have urged me to disregard logic and, instead, to give way to the natural and laudable desire of the Celtic fringe to have its own Post Office Users' Council. If this is really a matter which would be resented in Wales or Scotland, if it is a matter of burning importance that it should be statutory, who am I to say, in the teeth of this fierce opposition, that it should not be? I think that it is a nonsense, the Bill is rubbish in this respect and I will risk my skin by saying so publicly.

Not wishing to inflame the fires of Celtic nationalism still more, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Stonehouse

I beg to move Amendment No. 65, in page 17, line 4, after 'with', insert 'the chairman and'.

Members of the Standing Committee will remember that the Assistant Postmaster-General undertook to look at a suggestion contained in an Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) that members of the country councils should be appointed by the chairmen of those councils, and not the Minister. I am unable to accept that suggestion, because the final responsibility for appointments must rest with the Minister who is answerable to Parliament.

This is the view of the Post Office Users' Council. I accept the point that the views of the chairmen must be taken into account, and the object of this Amendment is to place on the Minister a statutory duty to consult the chairmen before making appointments.

Mr. Stratton Mills

It is true that I moved an Amendment in Committee dealing with this, but I am convinced that the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment is a better one. He has moved a considerable way to meet the point which was at the back of my mind. I thank him for tabling it and support it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Stonehouse

I beg to move Amendment No. 67, in page 20, line 19, leave out from first 'of' to end of line 20 and insert: 'the Post Office Users' National Council'. As drafted, Clause 14 disqualifies from membership of this House the chairmen of the four users' councils which it sets up, that is, the National Council and the three country councils for England, Wales and Monmouthshire, and Northern Ireland. During discussions in Committee the Assistant Postmaster-General undertook to see whether it was necessary for the chairmen of the three country councils to be disqualified. We have come to the conclusion that it is not, and this Amendment ensures that only the Chairman of the National Council will be disqualified.

Mr. Hay

I listened to the Postmaster-General with interest and growing alarm. If I understand the Clause aright, there is provision for allowances and remuneration to be paid to the chairmen of the country councils and for allowances to be paid to members of the country councils. The Amendment makes a Member of the House eligible for certain positions in relation to these country councils and therefore presumably eligible to obtain remuneration or allowances. I have always understood that this was entirely contrary to the practice of the House—that people should not be appointed to jobs outside and occupy offices of profit under the Crown. The House of Commons (Disqualification) Act sets out a whole list of offices from which Members are disqualified.

If the Postmaster-General, in his calm and quiet way, is breaching that longstanding and, I believe, very important tradition—that Members of the House should not be appointed to jobs outside which carry the right of remuneration, salary or allowances—he should "come clean" and tell the House that this is a major and not a minor issue.

Mr. Stonehouse

I do not think that it is a major issue, because the chairmen of the country councils will not be paid whereas the Chairman of the National Council will be paid. That is why a distinction is drawn between them.

Mr. Hay

Subsection (16) provides that The Minister may pay such allowances and remuneration to the chairman of the National Council and the officers and staff of any of the councils established under this section … The country councils are established under this Clause and the word "officers" could I presume mean the chairmen of the country councils and not necessarily the paid employees. The term "officers" of the country councils must surely be wide enough to embrace the chairmen, the vice-chairmen—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are not in Committee. The hon. Gentleman is merely intervening.

Mr. Hay

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Stonehouse

These gentlemen will be civil servants or officials. There is no question that the chairmen of the country councils will be paid for rendering service as a result of a direct appointment by the Minister. This is the distinction between the chairmen of the country councils and the chairman of the National Council.

Mr. Ridley

That news will be greeted with great disappointment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it will be greeted here with considerable relief. I am extremely glad that the Minister, having taken the point made in Committee, has seen fit to exclude the chairmen of the country councils from the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act. It seemed to me complete nonsense that the chairmen of the country councils, whose function is to protect the consumer and to protest, should be barred from the House of Commons which exists to protect the consumer.

Surely he would be a better chairman of the country council, or indeed a better member of any council, if he were a Member of the House. He would have more voice. We must not disqualify more people than is absolutely essential from being Members of the House. I support the Amendment, and I am grateful to the Postmaster-General for moving it.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

I was a bit puzzled by the Postmaster-General's reply. The chairmen of the country council will represent the consumer. I understood my right hon. Friend to say that they would be civil servants.

Mr. Stonehouse


Mr. Brown

That was what I understood him to say. The Chairman of the National Council clearly will not be a civil servant. Where does the civil servant come into this?

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Stonehouse

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) for his question. The chairmen and members of the councils will be members of the public appointed by the Minister as custodians of the consumer interest. They will be serviced by officials who will be civil servants who will be paid for as set out in the Bill.

I draw a distinction between the civil servants who are the officers of the country councils and the chairmen and members of the councils who are the custodians of the public interest appointed by the Minister. Only the Chairman of the National Council is to be paid a salary for his part-time services. The other members of the various councils can receive allowances. I hope that this clears up the point.

Mr. Dempsey

By "allowances" for the chairmen and members of the council, does my right hon. Friend mean normal allowances as compensation for loss of earnings together with subsistence and travelling expenses?

Mr. Stonehouse

We should leave these details to be dealt with by the Minister at his own discretion rather than debate them at this stage.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Peyton

I beg to move Amendment No. 68, in page 20, line 20, at end insert: (21) The Minister shall report to Parliament annually the details of any remuneration and allowances paid under this section. I am not fussy about the drafting of the Amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General would like to change it in any way, I should be more than happy to accept such changes, provided the sense of the Amendment is retained. This is a remarkably modest addition to the Clause which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to accept with alacrity. We all wish to make progress with the Bill, and if he would indicate by suitable gesture his willingness to meet us on the point, I would immediately sit down. Since the right hon. Gentleman is not willing to do that, I am obliged to expand a little on the argument.

I do not think it necessary for me to declaim at length the unpleasant and odious fact that State patronage has enormously increased. The number of jobs available for the Government to distribute has grown very considerably. It makes a big leap forward with every extension of public ownership. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, would not permit me to expand on this matter. Patronage would have made a very big step forward had the Parliament (No. 2) Bill not ended up where it properly belonged.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warning himself that he was going out of order.

Mr. Peyton

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for confirming that my suspicions were correct. I will not transgress further.

I remind the Postmaster-General that the power of patronage is something which Parliament has looked upon with jealousy. Although the merits of Lord North have been compared recently with those of the Prime Minister, I still feel that if Lord North were alive today, he might think that if he had not learned all the lessons concerning patronage that he could have done—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are not asking Lord North to present an annual account. The hon. Member must come to his Amendment.

Mr. Peyton

Surely, Mr. Speaker, in the course of a rather dull Bill one is allowed to decorate one's speech slightly, even if not at length. I find it felicitous to remind myself that there was once so admirable a Prime Minister as Lord North when today we have to languish under other themes.

I am asking the right hon. Gentleman—I do not see what the arguments are against it—to produce an annual return to Parliament stating what he is paying to his appointees. This would not involve him or anybody else in a great deal of labour and it would make clear to everyone what was being done. It would be in the national interest. The public are entitled to be fully informed of what is done in their name, particularly when it comes to the proliferation of jobs because, however great the stature of the characters who are to become either chairmen or members of the various councils, and no matter what their abilities, I very much doubt whether they will be able to safeguard the national interest with a Measure like this as their background. Still, I do not doubt that they will do their best and that they are entitled to some regard in their thankless and almost impossible task. For the benefit of Professor Parkinson as well as of myself, however, I hope that we can all be told regularly what their reward and remuneration is.

Mr. Stonehouse

I am grateful for the manner in which the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) moved his Amendment. I agree with him that it is important that there should be some knowledge by the public and by the House of the amount of remuneration that is being paid in these fields. I wonder, however, whether it is necessary to adopt the cumbersome procedure that the hon. Member has suggested, namely, that the information should be laid before the House annually in the way that the Amendment suggests. It would also be extremely cumbersome to include all the details of all the allowances paid to the members and staff of the councils as is suggested.

There will, of course, be ample opportunity for hon. Members to question the sponsoring Minister as to the expenses incurred under the subsection. Hon. Members will be able to obtain all the details that the hon. Member is seeking to obtain by a simple inquiry of the Minister. This is much preferable to putting a statutory provision in the Bill in the way that the Amendment proposes.

I hope that with the assurance that it will be a matter which is open for Parliamentary questioning and, indeed, debate—for instance, on an Adjournment debate if desired—the hon. Member will feel that, having achieved his purpose, he can withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Peyton

If I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, I can only say that it will be because my natural good nature and benevolence have overcome my better judgment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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