HC Deb 01 April 1974 vol 871 cc1025-54

10.3 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Industry and Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (Dissolution) Order 1974 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 20th March. This order gives effect to the Government's decision to abolish the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and to transfer its functions to the Department of Industry and the Home Office. These changes in departmental responsibilities require an order which cannot come into effect unless Parliament approves it. As hon. Members will know I am temporarily doubling as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications until the order comes into operation.

I will come to the order itself later, but first the House might find it helpful if I refer briefly to the proposals as a whole.

Hon. Members will recall that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications came into being on 1st October 1969 by virtue of the Post Office Act 1969 which also changed the status of the Post Office from a Government Department to a public authority. The Ministry was charged with two distinct tasks. First, it assumed responsibility for radio regulatory and broadcasting matters. Secondly, it was given the rôle of sponsoring within Whitehall the affairs of the new Post Office and of Cable and Wireless Limited on much the same basis as, say, the Department of the Environment looks after British Railways.

The Ministry is a very small one employing only about 460 people, and the Government believe that it is now preferable for governmental responsibility for the Post Office to be exercised in the wider context of a large Department which has greater resources available to it. In view of the very large capital investment requirement of the Post Office, particularly the telephone side of the business, it was decided that oversight of its operations would fit in best with the functions discharged by the Department of Industry, but it would not have been appropriate to transfer responsibility for broadcasting matters to that Department. As any Government responsibilities in this field are primarily of a regulatory nature, it was thought that they could most appropriately be exercised by the Home Office which is closely concerned with this kind of social issue and which has considerable experience of regulatory methods conducted through independent public authorities.

As hon. Members will see, the order transfers all the functions of the Minister to the Secretary of State. This is all that is required in law. In practice, the functions will be divided between myself and the Home Secretary on the basis that I have outlined.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Into which Department will technical decisions of principle be fitted?

Mr. Benn

I shall do my best to explain to my hon. Friend. I know his interest in this matter, because it is an interest that I share. The technical aspects of cables, if that is what he is thinking of, and I imagine that it is, will involve the interests of both the Home Secretary and myself, and it would clearly not be right, on the basis of the division of responsibility that I have described, that this should be seen either purely as a broadcasting matter or purely as a technical matter. I am aware of the implications of this, but in practice there will be consultation between the two Secretaries of State. I might add that the existing staff of the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications will be absorbed within the Department of Industry and the Home Office, but it is too early to say how many of them will be transferred to each Department.

I hope that in this brief introduction I have covered the broad points of the order. If hon. Members have any questions to which they would like a reply, I could attempt to answer them if I could catch the eye of the Chair towards the end of the discussion, or my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) would similarly attempt to answer any questions arising on radio and broadcasting topics.

The order seeks only to give effect to what the Government believe will represent a welcome rationalisation of work within the Government machine, and I assure hon. Members that it does not imply any change of policy in the accountability to Parliament of the Post Office, nor will it affect the traditional independence of government enjoyed by the broadcasting authorities in this country.

Before passing from the order and leaving it in the formal way that I have done, perhaps the House will allow me to say that this order, which dissolves a relatively new Department, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, brings to an end an old chapter and opens a new one in the history of the Post Office. I see some Members present who have had some association with the Post Office, but I am sure all hon. Members will recognise that this development is in line with a long stream of thinking going back to Rowland Hill himself.

It is, perhaps, wrong to let the motion go by without drawing the attention of the House to the very formidable list of people who have over the years urged that we should adopt a new policy towards the Post Office. When I was in the process of recommending, in 1964–65, that the Post Office should be made a public corporation, which was the decision adopted by the Cabinet and implemented in the 1969 Act, I looked up some of the references which had been made to this very issue over the years. If the House gives me a moment, I should like to put on the record some of the things which were said over this period so that the House will recognise that this is in line with a very long development of thinking.

Sir Rowland Hill is quoted in his "Life", on page 404, in 1864, as saying: It has been repeatedly urged in Parliament and in the public press that the Office of Postmaster-General should cease to be political and become permanent; and as already intimated, I cannot but consider such a change highly desirable. Going from 1864 to 1902, Sir Austen Chamberlain, sometime Postmaster-General, said: In a great administration like this there must be decentralisation, and how difficult it is to decentralise, either in the Post Office or in the Army, when working under constant examination by Question and Answer in this House. Going forward to the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Telephone Service in 1922, one finds that the Select Committee, in its report, House of Commons 54/1922, said: The Secretary's department at the General Post Office, which really controls it, has neither special business training, other than that of the ordinary Civil Service, nor special expert and technical qualifications. That Committee called for a Postmaster-General or a Minister of Communications on a different basis.

The late Lord Attlee, who was Postmaster-General in 1931, argued in an article that he wrote shortly after he left office: The Department should be administered either by a non-parliamentary Postmaster-General or by a Board appointed by the Minister for a term of years. Lord Wolmer, a Conservative, a former Assistant Postmaster-General, argued that the Post Office must be free of civil service regulations, Treasury control and political interference. If the House will bear with me I should like to complete this historical record from my files. Reginald Bevins, a former Postmaster-General said in his book published in 1965: The Post Office also suffers from another serious disorder. Unlike most Government Departments, the Post Office is not an administrative department. It is a business. Whoever heard of a business being conducted by a political Minister and by civil servants who are recruited in the same way as those who go to the Ministry of Health or Housing? In the same year Mr. Ernest Marples, a former Postmaster-General, said the same thing in an article that he wrote.

It fell to me, as Postmaster-General following Mr. Bevins, to make the recommendation to the Cabinet that this change should be made. It took the form of the Post Office Act 1969. It gave birth to a Department which had a short but a significant life. But now we are recognising that the two main areas of responsibility which fell to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications naturally divide into the regulatory function which falls now—or will fall if the House approves the order—to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his successors, and the responsibility for sponsoring what is now a great and growing nationalised industry, the Post Office Corporation, which will fall, along with the British Steel Corporation, to the Department of Industry to sponsor.

Those hon. Members who have taken an interest in the Post Office and who know and love it, as I candidly do, will recognise that in these developments there is a certain logic. No doubt the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Eden), who occupied the office which I now occupy but will shortly lose, will want to put some points that he thinks are of significance, but he will also recognise that in giving the Post Office its head now to develop in a way in which one would expect a great public corporation to develop, one would want to feel that, as it leaves its old, separate sponsoring Ministry, it enjoys the good will of both sides of the House of Commons.

10.15 p.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

The House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the explanation which he gave in introducing the order. I shall certainly not advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose it, although, as he rightly surmised, there are one or two questions which, in justice, one should put.

I heartily endorse the thinking which plainly lies behind the move, namely, that the responsibilities hitherto enshrined in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications are of such significance to the well being of everyone in this country and of such national importance that the Minister—or, as now emerges, the Ministers—in charge of those responsibilities should have a direct say at Cabinet level.

Considering both the Post Office side and the broadcasting side, encompassed in summary form, though quite inadequately, by the term "communications", one recognises the immense responsibilities which this small Department has been carrying. It is absolutely right that the weight of these responsibilities in their several parts should be acknowledged and proper regard be paid to them by ensuring that at the head of the Ministerial establishment is a Minister of Cabinet rank. Quite frankly, I always felt this strongly when I was there, and I am sure that it is right that that should be done.

The question mark hangs over whether it be right to go, as the order now proposes, straight to the break up or separation of the two functions. I readily understand the right hon. Gentleman when he says that they are separate and it is easy to take them apart and send them into different directions. But I wonder whether this has been done rather too hurriedly by the incoming Government. I say that with great respect and in a spirit of questioning rather than of criticism. There is doubt in my mind as to whether they have chosen the right home for the two separate parts. I shall return to that in a minute.

It has been put to me that one way of proceeding would have been to create a separate Ministry of Communications. It will be known to the right hon. Gentleman and to his right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse), as well as to some of my hon. Friends, that many of one's counterparts as Ministers with responsibilities in this sector in other countries have been Ministers of Communications, with responsibilities not just covering the postal and telecommunications side but going into and incorporating transport communications as well. Clearly, one of the possible moves open to the present Government was to create a Ministry of Communications incorporating the existing Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and some of the responsibilities of the Department of the Environment in relation to transport and some of the responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry, as it used to be, in relation to airways.

It would have made sense to do that, and I should like to know whether it was considered. Was that one of the options which were weighed before the decision was taken? It might have made sense to have moved the whole of this Department, comprising broadcasting and posts and telecommunications, initially into the Department of the Environment. That is certainly one of the suggestions that has come my way. The other was to have built on the base of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and to have made that into a much larger Department of Communications as a whole with a Cabinet rank Minister at the head of it.

I have two points to make about the proposal to separate. The first concerns the decision to place responsibility for Post Office and telecommunications with the Department of Industry. As the House will know the Post Office has a massive order book for equipment from British industry. British industry is very much dependent upon the way in which the Post Office discharges its responsibilities in order to equip it and to provide the most efficient possible telecommunications network. Important decisions have been taken in relation to future equipment such as TXE4 which will lead into the next generation of electronic switching equipment.

There have been worries about the relationship between the manufacturing companies and the monopoly buyer. I shall not go into any detail, because this is not the time to do so. I simply question the right hon. Gentleman at this stage because it is important for him if it is possible to make it quite clear—and I readily accept it may not be—within his Department that a direct conflict of interests could arise here. It is not necessarily in the national interest that that should happen, but from the basis of my experience I know that it could.

Of course, I welcome that the needs and requirements of the manufacturing industry as well as of the Post Office are understood by Government before decisions are taken by Ministers. Also I wish to be quite clear that if, when the matter comes to Ministers, there are separate points of view, those points are separately expressed to the responsible Minister so that he has an opportunity objectively to weigh up the relative arguments before taking a final decision.

I assume that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that it is not right to return to virtually a complete integration of the responsibilities of the Post Office in buying equipment and developing its own needs and the needs and wishes of the manufacturers into some re-created form of the ring system. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will wish to take the opportunity to make quite clear how it will work out in practice.

I welcome that the Under-Secretary, who has for a long time carefully followed these matters in Opposition from the Front Bench, is to be the Minister directly concerned with Post Office matters in the Department of Industry. As he will recognise, there are many major decisions to be taken about the Post Office which will no doubt fall to be taken by the Secretary of State and I would assume from the answer given by the right hon. Gentleman in HANSARD on 25th March that the Under-Secretary will answer direct to him on Post Office matters.

I turn briefly to the Home Office aspect. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is to be the Minister responsible for broadcasting policy. He has very good qualifications. He trained as a journalist with a daily paper in my constituency, and I believe that his parents live in my constituency. Therefore, he comes from a very good stable.

The fact that broadcasting matters are to be made directly the responsibility of a senior Minister is a recognition of the significant place that broadcasting should rightly hold in the eyes of the Government of the day. It is a right decision to put someone of top calibre in charge of a matter of such critical responsibility as broadcasting.

But the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have learnt from his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, that during a debate on Friday one or two questions were raised by his hon. Friends the Members for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) and Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) indicating a degree of worry, which to some extent I share. For the sake of brevity, I shall just touch on those questions.

I do not wish to be alarmist, and I genuinely do not read extra-sinister overtones or undertones into the move which has been made. However, I feel that an element of worry—no more—exists over there having been brought together in a single Department of State responsibility for the police, security, the operation of the criminal law and now broadcasting. I do not know what lies behind this move. Is the aim to create something similar to a Minister of the Interior? If so, we need to have it explained more fully and frankly than the right hon. Gentleman has been able to explain it so far. I do not expect that that is the real purpose. It may well be a kind of consolation prize for the Secretary of State for the Home Department for not having become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whatever the reason may be, the right hon. Gentleman should realise that bringing broadcasting into the Home Department has the wrong image so far. He needs to take that fact very seriously at the outset.

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said and for what the Minister of State said on Friday. I was taken to task for pressing him on the matter, but it was important that we should have it spelt out that the Government do not intend to depart from what has been the practice of all Governments of not intervening in matters of programme content and similar matters. I was reassured by the Minister. It was right that that was spelt out by the right hon. Gentleman and by his hon. Friend. But I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take seriously what I said about the image and the inter-relationship of these various factors in the broadcasting sector. It is a matter which needs to be spelt out at the beginning of this new chapter in the history of the Department.

The right hon. Gentleman made a whole series of historical references. I shall bring them up to date by simply saying that such a move, as I know he fully realises, means a tremendous upheaval for all the men and women who work in the Department. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was small Department, and numerically it is, but the people there have recognised the full weight of their responsibilities. They have come to work together as a most effective, happy and harmonious team. It is now being broken apart rather suddenly and rather rapidly. Apparently that is being done without a great deal of thought.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman will be among the first to join with me in paying tribute to those who have worked in the Department. As the last Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in the previous Government, I take this opportunity of thanking them for the way they served me and the previous Government. I have no doubt that that tradition of service will continue in what- ever capacity and in whatever Department they find themselves in future.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I echo what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) has said about the distinguished service of many people in the Post Office over the years. It would be wise if at this hour I do not let my eyes stray back to the Hills—either Rowland or Charles—or any distinguished people with whom the Post Office has been connected, but to confine myself to one or two caveats about the immediate future.

I too have worries about the division of responsibilities which seem implicit in the order if Paragraph 2 meant what it says and no more. It says: The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications is hereby dissolved and all the functions of the Minister are hereby transferred to the Secretary of State. Perhaps we might know in the immediate future where to address our real concern about future broadcasting, and not merely its future but the future of the interrelated technologies with which it is intimately bound. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, we now have not merely that one voice in the Cabinet for which he no doubt pines, but two voices. The division will inevitably mean that in the minds of some right hon. and hon. Members there will be some confusion as to precisely where the decisions will be taken about the future of broadcasting, and especially about all the interrelated matters which lie within the remit of the Post Office.

Technological developments, which have been closely watched by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, are so interrelated that it is impossible to distinguish technical decisions of principle from the more philosophical and political implications of decisions on the future of broadcasting. Developments such as cable television, satellite transmission and video cassettes are part of the economic and social arguments for saying that the whole of the mass media are a part of the telecommunications system. The future of broadcasting is bound up on the transmission side with technological and investment decisions on a national scale in which broadcasting plays only a small part. Much of broadcasting's existing transmission system is a by-product of other communications such as the telephone and data transmissions. With new technologies that will increasingly become the case.

I fail to understand how we can look at the development of cable television in isolation from the Post Office's proposals for interrelated telecommunication networks. I also fail to understand how we can look at the future without considering the implications of matters such as facsimile transmission and CEFAX for the development of the Press. Equally important is the future of the cinema, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred last Friday. We must also consider what will happen to the cinema in view of the future of video cassettes and in the event of pay television being incorporated in cable television. All these matters have been discussed and to some extent were within the scrutiny of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

Many hon. Members would like to know precisely where responsibilities now lie. There has been considerable argument about transmission and I shall devote my time to transmission as that is the most urgent consideration which lies before the policy makers, be they in the Department of Industry or in the Home Office. The case has been put very strongly by the Post Office Engineering Union that there should be a completely integrated transmission system. Those of us who remember the reports of the estimable Select Committee on Nationalised Industries will remember what was said in the Committee's first report on Capital Investment Procedures. It recommended that a long-term plan embracing telephony data transmission and the transmission and distribution of radio and television signals should be drawn up as soon as possible. One is entitled to ask: by whom? This matter is urgent. If there is to be an integrated system as recommended by the Select Committee, the matter should be discussed in the relevant Ministry.

The same Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, in its second report, said in one of its recommendations on the performance of the Independent Broadcasting Authority that it did not feel particularly capable of arbitrating between those who said that transmission should remain with the broadcasting authorities and those who said that transmission should be separated. It drew attention to the fact that in the latest service set-up by the Canadian Broadcasting Commission no transmitting facility had been given to the broadcasting authority. This point has been made by the POEU in arguing for integrated transmission facilities.

These are technical and complex matters. They are strenuously resisted by the Federation of Broadcasting Unions and others who wish to see transmitting remain connected with the output of broadcasting. These are matters which we shall wish to see resolved one way or other in the near future. This was the kind of decision I had in mind when I said to my right hon. Friend that we wanted to know whether technical decisions were to be in the hands of the Department of Industry or of the Home Office.

There are two other matters for imminent decision, as well as whether there is a comprehensive inquiry into the future of broadcasting and mass communications. The first is the question of decisions on cable television. At the moment the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has been administered by the Post Office direct. The five cable television experiments taking place in five towns have been operated entirely under the Ministry of Posts, and nobody else. No statutory authority has been responsible for them—in other words, they have operated directly to the Minister. That experiment is continuing, and indeed one of the five experiments is barely under way at present. In this situation I should like to know in whose hands now rests the day-to-day administration of cable television. Is this experiment to be continued and extended?

We know that in other comparable Western European countries, and on the North American continent, cable television is expanding by about 12 per cent. a year. This process is being somewhat artificially confined within this country. There are many in the commercial sphere, particularly the Cable Television Association, who wish to see this process expanding much faster and who indeed wish to see a separate Cable Television Council. At the moment no decision has been taken on this matter.

We are somewhat behind the French who have set up seven experiments in cable television and who, according to the latest report from the Council of Europe on cable television in France, have now set up a State authority under the French Ministry of Information. Since a Ministry of Information implies a one-way form of communication, I would not want to see an integrated responsibility for broadcasting and the technical developments that follow within that kind of single Ministry. Therefore, I should like to know where these decisions are to be taken in the near future.

There is one final technical matter to which I should like to draw attention, namely, the question of a decision on satellites. Our contribution to Intelsat and to the international satellite programme generally has been fairly significant. There are those who argue that we have not received our due return. There are also many who would argue that commercial pressures are overriding within Comsat, the American organisation that services the satellite communications industry in the United States, particularly under the Nixon administration. I wish to know where the decisions are now to be taken about the level of our contribution to Intelsat and the extent of our international communication satellite technology. I hope that we shall be told where the decisions are likely to be taken on our participation in respect of the future of the European geo-stationary system, if there is to be one. Does my hon. Friend the Minister wish to intervene?

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Whitehead

Perhaps my hon. Friend does not know, in which case he confirms my point. We are in considerable doubt about where the day-to-day decisions will be taken which will materially affect our future broadcasting technology.

Many people think of investigations into broadcasting as being entirely concerned with the destiny of the fourth television channel, with the style of television programmes and with the responsibility for taste, balance and due impartiality. In the past the technical matters to which I have alluded, which involve far-reaching investment decisions and far-reaching decisions of principle, have, on the whole, rested snugly with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. It would seem that in future they are, to some degree, likely to be divided between the Home Office, with all its responsibilities and well-known caution in these matters, and the Department of Industry.

As I have tried to show, all these technical decisions inter-relate. They are all intimately connected with the way in which broadcasting in particular and telecommunications in general will develop. Therefore, the Ministries which are to take the investment, planning and political decisions should also inter-relate. We on this side of the House, and probably hon. Members opposite, would like to have more information about the form in which that inter-relationship will take place within the Government.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)

As the last surviving Assistant Postmaster-General, I should like to say a few words on this measure. I was impressed by the reasonable manner in which the Secretary of State presented it, but I expected that because he was a Postmaster-General, and Postmasters-General and Assistant Postmasters-General have always been reasonable.

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) referred to the subject of international satellites. When I was in office, we might easily have become American-dominated. As one of the major communications nations, this country could have become hirers of the system, but, in fact, we became partners in an international satellite corporation.

The Secretary of State referred to the 460 people who are employed in the Ministry. The Department has moved along a logical course, and the people involved have done their duty extremely well, and the House should pay tribute to the service they have given. Some of them will now go to the Home Office and some will go to the Department of Industry. I hope that they will be as happy in their new environment as they were in the old.

The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) referred to the question of responsibilities in broadcasting. That matter exercises the minds of people not only in the House but outside it. I do not think that either the BBC or the IBA is carrying out its responsibilities in maintaining the standard of morality that the people expect. I ask the Minister of State, Home Office to draw this view to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Order. I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he will realise that we are discussing the control of the Post Office, and I hope that, after I have allowed him to make his point about morality, he will get back to order.

Mr. Mawby

I apologise profusely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was carried away. We all have our axes to grind, but I will not grind that axe any further.

The hon. Member for Derby, North takes a different view from me on data transmission cable television. The Post Office has shown the world that there is no one better at data transmission, but it should seriously consider the amount of capital expenditure in which it is involved in providing computers to deal with data. The Post Office can provide an excellent service for data transmission but it should not go beyond that.

I wish all the people within the Post Office who have served us all so well good luck. The staff who served the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications will be split up, some going to the Post Office and some to the Department of Industry, but I know that they will give the same excellent service to those Departments as they gave to us when we were in office.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

It is clear from your clarion voice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you do not require any broadcasting system. It is good to know that it is lasting so well in your new duties. Because of your suggestion to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby), I will not follow his criticism of the BBC and the IBA, except to say that if he had used the words "good taste" or "objectivity" rather than "morality" he might have received a greater measure of support from the House.

I join him and other speakers in paying tribute to those who served Members of Parliament so well in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Each time I have had contact with people at the Ministry, they have been most helpful, and I am sure that that has been the experience of all hon. Members. I am talking now not about service by the Post Office itself, which is excellent, but service by the Ministry.

My sole criticism of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) is of his suggestion that the sole reason for the division of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications between the Department of Industry and the Home Office was in order to give a consolation prize to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for not being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Who would want to be Chancellor of the Exchequer to clear up the mess which the last Government left? That is the only party political point I intend to make tonight.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was followed by a large measure of agreement from the Opposition Front Bench. As older Members know, when there is a large measure of agreement between the two Front Benches alarm signals should be ringing on the back benches. If, therefore, in the cold light of morning, my questions seem a little jaundiced, I hope my right hon. Friend will not be too hard on me. But they have to be asked, and now is the time to ask them. I am referring particularly to the Post Office side in this context. The Post Office service goes back further than Rowland Hill. It was founded in 1657 and I think it is the best in the world, despite all the criticisms.

The old titles of Postmaster-General and Assistant Postmaster-General disappear with the system. The occupants of both offices served the nation very well, no matter which side of the House they came from. But the offices became, really, stepping-stones to higher ministerial office. Few Postmasters-General and few Assistant Postmasters-General were able to stay in office long enough to get the full value from the Department. I suppose that this order is not quite as important as the dissolution of the monasteries, but it is an opportunity to record these things.

My right hon. Friend said that the reason for the Government's decision lay in there being a large department and a small department with a very large capital investment which had to be controlled. So, part of the Ministry goes into the Department of Industry and part into the Home Office. My right hon. Friend gave us many quotations supporting the Government in this move, but he did not say, nor did he attempt to say, why the last Labour Government did not do it in 1969. I can recall no suggestion at the time that we should follow reorganisation of the Post Office into a public corporation by a dissolution of the Ministry itself. If it is right to do it now, why was it not right to do it in 1969?

The Government's decision attracted some publicity, but only after the decision had been taken. Was it not possible for consultation to take place first with the Post Office Corporation itself or with the consultative committees or with the trade unions or with the Parliamentary Labour Party or with the Labour Party itself?

We have had some information about who will have day-to-day responsibility for the Post Office, and I am certain that it will be in good hands. Could we not have a leaflet or some other type of publication explaining in detail just where the political responsibility lies? This new structure will be a joint venture by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Industry, and such information would be useful both to the House and to the country. It is a new venture. I think it will have support from all sides of the House. But this is the time to ask what consultation was undertaken and how far it was able to be extended.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am pleased to be called after the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), because one of his points was in my mind, although I differ with his view about it. There are aspects of the order which are welcome and overdue. The hon. Gentleman referred to the transfer of responsibility for the Post Office Corporation to the Department of Industry. I regard this as a natural development which could have been undertaken when the change in status of the Post Office first occurred, and it is right to do it now.

As we connive at the dismemberment of the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, it is primarily to its effects in this House that I wish to refer. The administrative implications of the change are sound, because the basic assumptions on which it is proposed are sound. It is to the implications to this House and to ministerial answerability that some attention needs to be directed.

There will no longer be a Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. That is no great loss in euphony. He was perhaps the most unattractively-styled Minister. If the Postmaster-General had to go, it was a pity that he had to live on a little longer with such an unpleasant title. But it means that in this House no Minister can concentrate upon and have primary responsibility for broadcasting. Successive Home Secretaries have pointed out how matters of pressing national importance arrive like bolts from the blue to disturb whatever they are trying to consider in the long term and to divert their attention to immediate, short-term and usually drastically serious problems. It is difficult to see how the Home Secretary can take the longer-term view of broadcasting which is needed. Many people are looking to the Government for a major review of certain aspects of broadcasting policy. I have in mind such matters as the future of television and the future of commercial radio. These require the major interest of a Minister. We were interested to hear the Minister of State on Friday setting out the new responsibilities of the Home Department, some of which will be carried out largely in another place, and there is widespread concern about ministerial responsibility. If the major review of broadcasting is to be one of the Home Secretary's main concerns, it will require a tremendous shift of emphasis for him and his Department.

May we be clear that all telecommunications matters relating to broadcasting are now to be in the hands of the Home Office and that only strictly Post Office matters have been transferred to the Secretary of State for Industry? Where is the boundary to be?

There are, for example, a number of problems affecting wavelengths which will need discussion. They might appear to be highly technical communications matters, but they raise very serious implications. The re-allocation of commercial wave lengths is one which will arise if the Government decide, as I hope they will, to take back some of the wavelengths which have been provisionally allocated to commercial use to ensure a total national radio service. This is a decision not only of technical importance but of general broadcasting importance, and it is one that the Home Secretary should consider.

Mr. Whitehead

The hon. Gentleman might concentrate the Government's mind by asking which Minister will be responsible for the renegotiation of the Copenhagen Convention on European wavelengths.

Mr. Beith

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that. It is an issue which Ministers always raise when wavelengths are under consideration. Although they have been profligate with the wavelengths that we have already, I shall be interested to know who is to deal with the future wavelengths which we can get by European agreement.

Transmitters provide another area where the boundary between the technical and the policy fields is not clear. The number of transmitters, the programme for transmitter building, and cases which have arisen in recent months such as Belmont, now happily settled, all illustrate that there is no natural technical and policy boundary which can be followed.

Questions of licence revenue, which may appear to be simple Post Office matters, raise serious broadcasting implications. Some of us have been trying to persuade the Crawford Committee that there is cause for remitting the licence revenue or using it to subsidise relay services in areas with no adequate service of television reception. This is a matter which crosses the boundary between technical and policy matters.

I turn now to the issue of Questions. When we had a Minister of Posts and Telecommunications we had an allotted time for Questions in this House on broadcasting and postal matters, both of which could get a clear and regular airing and over which the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) exercised responsibility for some time and, indeed, answered many Questions on matters raised by me. This avenue is no longer open to us. Now we must share the time with many pressing Home Office matters.

At the first opportunity during Business Questions at the beginning of the Session I asked the Leader of the House whether provision could be made for Questions on broadcasting and postal matters to gain some priority, at least occasionally. I have been informed by him today that this matter will be discussed through the usual channels.

I hope that Ministers are aware that there is concern that broadcasting policy Questions will be pushed to the bottom of a fairly long queue of Questions for consideration by Home Office Ministers. We shall enjoy being looked at sternly by the Minister of State, Home Office when he gazes at us over his glasses, but only if we get the opportunity. I have indicated my fears about which Ministers will be responsible. It will be a matter of concern if we do not get a Minister at the Dispatch Box often enough to answer Questions on broadcasting matters. I had hoped that there might be an opportunity of providing a separate slot as there is for questions to the Minister of State, Civil Service Department. If the title of Minister of Posts and Telecommunications had been retained and held in plurality with another Department, that at least would have been possible.

All these matters exercise concern. I hope that I have left sufficient time for the Minister to give us an adequate reply.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I join the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in drawing attention to the difficulties that may arise in determining where the dividing line is to come. I hope that the points that he made will get a clear answer tonight.

My interest is that I have already trod the path which the noble band from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications is shortly to tread, because in the last Government I had the pleasure of working with the Ministry before following dutifully behind my master to the Department of Trade and Industry. Therefore, I think that I can claim some experience of the kind of reception that awaits them.

I think that I can join my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) in saying that it will be a happy transition. They will miss some of the aspects of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications that those of us who had the pleasure of working there appreciated most. It was an intimate, friendly and compact Department. By its nature it was the smallest Department in Whitehall, and, as one would expect, it had the attributes of a small and closely knit community. By no stretch of the imagination could the Department of Industry be described with such adjectives. Without question is has many virtues, but it lacks the closeness and personality.

I recognise that this is a reasonable order, but I think that the Secretary of State introduced it in a most unreasonable way. Some of the arguments that he adduced were the worst that could be found. I am sorry that he has come under such fire from both sides of the House. The two measures with which he, as a prophet of consultation, has been involved in the House today appear to have involved no consultation whatever on his part. However, I think it was a little unfair of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) to attack him from behind his back on this sensitive point.

Mr. Ogden

From behind my right hon. Friend's back is not of my choosing. I would prefer to do it to his face.

Mr. King

Whichever way, I am sure that the Secretary of State was wise to face his accuser. Nevertheless, it was a very telling point.

The Secretary of State referred to rationalisation. This was not the best reason to adduce for this move. The right hon. Gentleman was not present when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade was attributing the total cause of our balance of payments deficit to the fact that the old Board of Trade had disappeared into the new Department of Industry and stating that one of the prime reasons why the balance of payments would now improve was that at last the Department of Trade and Industry was being broken up and the old Board of Trade hived off. Now we see the arch-priest of rationalisation back at work, including yet more Departments into the Department of Trade and Industry.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was a little carried away when he said that this was the culmination of what so many had sought. He quoted the freedom from Government control that everyone sought for the Post Office. One quotation referred to the need for freedom from Treasury control, and he said that at last this had been achieved—this, on the same day as the Chancellor of the Exchequer finished the debate on a Budget which announced increases in postal and telephone charges. That does not look like total freedom from Treasury control.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that these Departments would naturally divide, but after the speeches of the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), no one seriously believes that. I suppose that one should not watch reactions in the Chamber, but I noticed that when the hon. Member for Derby, North asked who would be responsible for cable television there was quite a Front Bench consultation. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman could not reply to the intervention about where the various people would go shows that the division has not yet been made. It will be more complicated.

One area gives me, and, I know, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), great concern. The difficulty of the old Ministry was the ability to vet and to approve on a sound basis the new generation of telephone exchange equipment. I recognise that this will be a great difficulty for the right hon. Gentleman and his Department. The decision is complicated, and enormous sums and the fate of our telephone system until the end of the century and beyond depend upon its being right. It is difficult to know whether there is in Government the adequate expertise to give Ministers the right information. That decision was as difficult as any that my right hon. Friend had to take, and it will obviously require continuing monitoring by the right hon. Gentleman as well.

My other concern over the change is the situation of broadcasting. The speeches tonight show the concern of all hon. Members with the fact that broadcasting is a very hot potato. It is the most powerful influence in this country—beyond Parliament. No Government like to he seen overtly to influence it, yet it is subject to enormous political pressure by all parties. The difficulty is to know what to do with it. It has to be sponsored by someone, it has to be in some Ministry, yet any Ministry is open to criticism.

I felt that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was a happy British compromise. It was not a major Ministry, its Minister was not in the Cabinet, yet it had a Minister with a separate responsibility who was rather jealous of that responsibility. Although he had to be sponsored in Cabinet and, therefore, there was a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility, there was a distinction and a buffer. What worries me is that broadcasting will now come under the responsibility directly of a Cabinet Minister, with all the strongest political pressures on him.

I think that, in a funny way, with all its imperfections the old system had some merit, and it worries me very much that the pretence, if one likes, or the mystique that broadcasting was not under quite such direct political pressure has been cast away and we may be moving, perhaps not under this administration, or even under ours if we come to office shortly, but under a future administration, to something like a Ministry of the Interior.

One does not have to look very far across the Channel to see in what we think are advanced modern democracies how total can be the political interference in broadcasting. It is against that background that I have some regret at the developments that we see in this order.

Mr. Wyn Roberts (Conway)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the order and the allocation of responsibility for broadcasting to the Home Office are part of the Government's overall strategy of which we heard on Friday? Would it not be far easier for us to make up our minds about the order if we knew what the overall strategy was?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend has nipped in nimbly when I had sat down, but I am sure that that is a provoking thought.

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

We enjoyed that little bit of knockabout between the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and his hon. Friend the Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts). But there is a fair degree of unanimity this evening that this is a welcome reorganisation of Government Departments and I do not think there will be too many tears at the wake. It is something that I welcome. I am pleased that the sponsoring Department of the Post Office will have access to the Cabinet and that the Post Office will have the backing and sponsorship of a large Department of State.

There are two matters which I should like to raise at this late hour, and I shall be as brief as I can. The first is to make the serious point that the Post Office is not all about communications. The Post Office is a vast conglomerate, and I am never sure, on the postal and telecommunications side, where communications end and where transport begins.

There are other facets of the operations of the Post Office that will come to the attention of my right hon. Friends who will have to concern themselves with banking, data processing and the other activities carried out by the Post Office. I make the plea to my right hon. Friend that due attention should be paid in the Department to these aspects of growing importance to the Post Office and that they should not be swallowed up in the consideration of the telecommunications business and the postal business.

My second point concerns the Post Office Users' National Council, which has been one of the most vociferous and most successful of the consumer consultative councils in the nationalised industries. Under the chairmanship of Lord Peddie it has made a considerable impact on the thinking of the Ministry and of the Post Office, and I should like to see that work continued in years to come.

I must ask my right hon. Friend who will be responsible for the sponsorship of the Post Office Users' National Council. I do not want to see its work being stifled and lost. I want to see it being given the support that it has received over the last couple of years from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications so that it can carry on the good Job that it has been doing on behalf of the consumers in looking at Post Office affairs.

I do not wish to go further than that this evening. I hope that we shall have further opportunities in the near future to look at Post Office affairs. I reflect some of the comments that have been made in saying that this reorganisation will not remove from right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to approach the Secretary of State and to make points on the Post Office Corporation and its activities.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to cover those two points when he replies to the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that two Ministers wish to reply to the debate. The second Minister will, of course, do so by the grace of the House.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Bean

Some points of substance have been raised. If my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Home Department could deal with broadcasting, I shall do my best to go through the points made.

First, I accept what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Eden) said about the benefit of being in the Cabinet if one is dealing with these problems, which may be thought slight but are usually very significant because on both sides they touch the public so intimately. Having been a Postmaster-General out of Cabinet, I share the right hon. Gentleman's feeling about the importance of having Cabinet position. As to his proposal that the Ministry might have been included in the Department of the Environment, it is possible, as was done in Sweden, to link it with road transport and rail, because even at the end of the parcels service one is dealing with an aspect of communications. But the right hon. Gentleman and the House will know that Government decisions are taken by the Prime Minister of the day and that this is something which is, therefore, rather different in decision making from decisions collectively taken by Ministers.

It is not normal for the Prime Minister to consult civil servants about the disposition of Departments or about the people he puts in charge of them. There- fore, as no one has been affected in relation to his Civil Service status but all that has happened is that he has found himself under a different Minister, the point about consultation may not arise.

On the question of the Post Office being a customer of the telecommunications industry and the Ministry now being sponsor of the industry, this is a reversal to the position before 1964, when the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) was both sponsoring Minister for the industry and Postmaster-General. There is no great logic in this. The previous Government specifically did that with the aircraft industry and air corporations and the shipbuilding and shipping industries, whereas we have generally taken the view that the sponsoring Minister should be different from the Minister who sponsors the user industry. But in this particular arrangement it reverts to the pre-1964 position.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be accounting in the House directly to me on Post Office matters. I know that in his contributions to the debates he has won the respect of hon. Members who follow Post Office matters. I am proud to have him with me in this task.

I join also in saying something about the officials of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Despite what I have just said about consultation with civil servants and the machinery of Government question, I should like to repeat what has been said about the loyal service that they have given in a Department which very much affects relations between the Government, the public sector as a whole and the people. I worked with them in 1964–66. I am very proud to have found myself 10 years later in association with the brigade. Those who come into the Department of Industry will certainly be welcomed by the Secretary of State, whatever their fate may be in a large Department. Like the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), I have made this track before, from the Post Office in 1964 to the Ministry of Technology, which was my Department under another name. There is a connection between the two Departments. I shall make it my business, as will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, so see that those who come to us are welcome in their present position.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be responsible for all broadcasting matters. There is a logical division between broadcasting administration and Post Office sponsorship. It is true—this is a very significant point—that the impact of the technology of communications on broadcasting possibilities is a very important interconnection. But it is not uncommon in Government to find two Ministries overlapping in a common interest where one is policy and one is technology. I would expect that on matters such as cable there would clearly be a common interest in certain aspects. But all broadcasting matters, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State will show, will pass to the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool. West Derby (Mr. Ogden) said that he had a natural suspicion whenever he found the two Front Benches in agreement.

Mr. Ogden

I was quoting my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Benn

I did not realise that, but I was about to say that I entirely agree. I have never felt easy in my mind when I found the exchange of courtesies across the Floor going beyond a certain formal politeness.

My hon. Friend asked why this change had not been made in 1969. I believe that it was discussed. He asked for a guide to be made public so that anyone in doubt should have it cleared up. I think that that might be done in a formal Written Answer, and I shall see whether that can be arranged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) asked about Giro and the users' council. If I may boast paternity in respect of both those services, in which I remain deeply interested, I assure my hon. Friend that the promotion of the Giro and the necessary business base to ensure that it grows will be my concern as the sponsoring Minister. I assure him also that the Post Office Users' National Council will continue and will, I hope, play a leading part in the development of the Post Office, beginning with the difficult task of looking at the tariff increases now foreshadowed.

I thank the House for the courtesy with which it has received the motion, and I commend the order for approval

11.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

May I by the leave of the House deal with the matters which come more within the ambit of the Home Office?

In view of the concern which has been expressed about the way the division will take place, perhaps it would be best if we tried to set it out in a Written Answer so that the House could turn to it for guidance.

Broadly, in the general structure the Home Office will be responsible for broadcasting and the Department of Industry will be responsible for the Post Office side of the present administrative set-up. The Home Office will receive the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications powers under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, which include the power to control the use of frequencies. Also, it will have the BBC's charter and licence and agreement and the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, and the powers under Part IV of the Post Office Act 1969, which include the power to control the use of cable to provide services similar to over-the-air broadcasting services.

In practice, therefore, from the standpoint of the way in which the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was divided, the Home Office will acquire the radio regulatory division which licences the use of frequencies, for instance, in aeronautical services, private mobile radios and so on, and it will negotiate international agreements on the use of the frequency spectrum. Thus, it will fall to us to deal with any renegotiation of the Copenhagen agreement.

The second part of the old Ministry was the broadcasting department responsible for advising Ministers on policy relating to the BBC and the IBA and on broadcasting generally. This also will come to the Home Office. It will include the use of frequencies for broadcasting and the use of cable to provide broadcasting services.

Lastly, the Home Office will take the directorate of radio technology, which provides the engineering support for the radio regulatory division and the broadcasting department.

In terms of personnel, therefore, the Home Office will take about two-thirds of the personnel who used to work for the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. The rest, who are broadly responsible for the sponsorship of the Post Office, will go to the Department of Industry. I shall consider whether we can set that out in a Written Answer so that it is easily available.

I think that the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) raised somewhat impishly the question of whether we were trying to move towards a Minister of the Interior by merging all these powers of communications with all the powers of control that exist in the police department. If studied carefully that suggestion can be seen to be nonsense. The powers which the Home Office has in most of its areas of control are strictly limited and much less than the average Ministry of the Interior or Ministry of Justice elsewhere. The actual powers in the police department are extremely limited compared to continental ministries.

This is simply a question of English history. The Department of Home Affairs is the residual legatee of most of the administrative powers of government on the home side. It was originally the only Department of Home Affairs, and it, therefore, contains a whole collection of Government powers which include, as well as the police, things like the theatre and cinema and the whole matter of the kind of powers exercised in government in relation to obscenity and so on. These matters come within the purview of the Home Office largely because it is that residual legatee.

The question of where to put broadcasting, if the old Ministry is deprived of the powers relating to the Post Office, in the whole spectrum of Government is not a difficult decision to make. The obvious place is the Home Office, which has the general oversight of the liberty of the citizen. It is interesting that I should be criticised tonight on the basis that we have taken into a somewhat despotic Government Department this whole area of communications. Only last Thursday at Question Time we were being urged from the Opposition benches to keep within the control of the Home Office the whole question of the amendment of the law relating to picketing. Only in the Home Office, the Opposition felt, did we have the necessary expertise in balancing the individual liberties of various groups of citizens. If we have it for that, we have it also for the sphere of telecommunications.

It has never been the policy of successive Governments that we should intervene in the content of broadcasting programmes, and it is not the intention of this Government—and I hope not of any other Government—to do so. I state that specifically in relation to any kind of political content, but I state it also with a view to what was said by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) in respect of the issues he raised. It would be wrong if a Government were to take that kind of power. They have a regulatory function in the overall conduct of bodies appointed by Parliament, and they should exercise that power properly within the limits set by Parliament. But to intervene in the direct content of individual broadcasting programmes would be wrong. I do not think it was the intention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he made this break that the Home Office or any other Department would do it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (Dissolution) Order 1974 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 20th March. To be presented by Privy Counsellors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.

  1. ADJOURNMENT 12 words
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