§ 11.6 p.m.
§ The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)
I beg to move,That the Civil Defence (Posts and Telecommunications) Regulations, 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th December, be approved.The purpose of the Regulations is simple, and I hope that, at this late hour, I shall not need to detain the House for more than a few minutes. The Regulations continue the policy of successive Governments and they are, I hope, entirely uncontroversial.
The Post Office, when it was a Government Department, undertook at its own expense, that is, at the expense of the Post Office Fund which then existed, various measures to secure the maintenance of essential public services in the event of hostile attack. The Post Office Act, 1969, changed the status of the Post Office to that of a public authority; it was put on the same footing as other nationalised industries. It was then recognised by the Government of the day that it was essential in the public interest that a Minister should be in a position to oblige the Post Office to undertake necessary work of this sort and to reimburse it—an arrangement which prevails in respect of other nationalised industries.
These Regulations achieve those ends by giving the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications of the day power to obtain from the Post Office reports about work which is being done, and power to require the Post Office to take such measures as he may specify and to pay grants in respect of that work. The present level of reimbursement which is fixed by the Treasury for other nationalised industries for work of this sort is just over 50 per cent., and these Regulations apply the same rate to the Post Office.
I hope that this brief explanation will suffice to enable the House to approve the Regulations.
§ 11.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the purpose of the Regulations is uncontroversial, and they are accepted by this side of the House, but I have one or two 219 questions to put. One of them is faintly legal, but I am sure that the Minister will have the answer.
I have looked at the Act under which the Regulations are made. As with various other pieces of delegated legislation coming before the House from time to time, it is necessary to look at about three Acts of Parliament at one and the same moment in order to ascertain what the Regulations are designed to do. I am sure that there is an answer to the conundrum which my researches have raised—perhaps it is just that I have not been able to find it—and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman, or those advising him, will be able to produce it straight away.
The Regulations are made under Section 6 of the 1948 Act. That gives the Minister a discretion to bring again into force by Regulation the provisions of the Civil Defence Acts of 1939. We are then thrown back to the 1939 Act, which clearly applies to what is referred to as "public utility undertakers". "Public utility undertakers" are defined in the Act asany persons authorised by any enactment or order to construct, work or carry on any railway, canal, inland navigation, dock, harbour, gas, electricity or water undertaking …The one thing not contained in that definition is the magic words "Post Office" I am sure that somewhere the Post Office has been made a public utility undertaking for the purpose of the Civil Defence Act, 1939. I notice that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) is in the course of trying to discover which enactment made it so. I should be obliged if the right hon. Gentleman could answer this point.
The second point which arises from the Act and which I hope is of perhaps greater substance and weight than the purely legal point is this. The Civil Defence Acts of 1939 and 1948 specifically do not apply to Northern Ireland. What is the position concerning Northern Ireland under these Regulations? If there was one part of the United Kingdom in which this power of the Minister would be important and thoroughly desirable for the Post Office Corporation to tell the right hon. Gentleman what it would do in the event of civil conflict to 220 try to maintain its existing powers and services, I should have thought it would be Northern Ireland.
In substance, the Regulations seem to be eminently sensible, but as there is provision in the Regulations for the Minister to make paymentsout of monies provided by Parliament towards the approved expenses of the Post Office",Perhaps it would be as well if, first, he gave the statutory authority for it, and, secondly, we discovered whether the Regulations apply to Northern Ireland.
There is one small point. Paragraph 5(1) of the Regulations provides that:The Minister may pay out of monies provided by Parliament towards the approved expenses of the Post Office in taking measures … to secure the due functioning of its undertaking in the event of hostile attack grants not exceeding fifty-two and three quarters per centum of those expenses".Why 52¾ per cent.? I am sure that there is a very good reason for it, but for the life of me I do not know what it is.
§ 11.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Chataway
These are not the easiest of questions which the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) puts to me at this hour.
I will check this, but I understand that, since the main Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, it was not possible to make the Regulations apply to Northern Ireland.
On the first point, I am advised—and it is fortunate that I have advisers and that there is an adequate communications system between me and those advisers—that Section 36(1) of Schedule 4 of the Post Office Act, 1969, lays down thatAs from the appointed day, the authority shall be deemed to be public utility undertakers and its undertaking a public utility undertaking for the purposes of the provisions of the Civil Defence Act, 1939, other than …certain paragraphs. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman can be satisfied that all is well in that respect.
The figure of 52¾ per cent. has been arrived at by the Treasury in relation to not only the Post Office but other nationalised industries as a fair proportion for the Government to pay in respect of work of this description which is undertaken. Some of the work which is undertaken by the Post Office, as by other 221 nationalised industries in this connection, will be of value to its day-to-day working. Therefore, it would not be right that that should be subject to grant from the Government. There must obviously be discretion in this, and, no doubt, past Administrations have been involved in it. I gather that the figure is acceptable to the Post Office, and it is the same figure which is applied to other undertakings, and so I hope it will be acceptable to the House.
§ Mr. Richard
I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman would say a little more about Northern Ireland. He is quite right, as a matter of law, that if the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland he cannot make Regulations to apply to Northern Ireland, but is it his intention to introduce legislation in respect of Northern Ireland which would give him, as Minister, the same powers in relation to the Post Office in Northern Ireland as he has in relation to the Post Office in England? Northern Ireland is one part of the United Kingdom where, I should have thought, it would be important that these powers should be exercised at this time.
§ Mr. Chataway
These powers relate to a situation in which the country is subject to attack from hostile Powers. That is the situation envisaged. It is in the event of a major attack that these kinds of provisions really are necessary. As the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland and these Regulations do not apply to Northern Ireland, clearly I should be trespassing upon your good will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I were to go far along the lines the hon. Gentleman invites me to go this evening, but I will certainly consider the point he has raised, and, if I may, write to him about it subsequently.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Civil Defence (Posts and Telecommunications) Regulations, 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th December, be approved.